Protecting the Vulnerable Among Us

Many people in the substance use disorder community still need to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Oakland Community Health Network is bridging this gap.

Metro Detroit parents may be focusing on the post-pandemic world, but with a critical vaccine gap still remaining, we’re not there yet. Oakland Community Health Network (OCHN) estimates that fewer than 1% of individuals OCHN serves with a substance use disorder (SUD) have received the vaccine. Yet this is precisely the population that should be vaccinated, says Dana Lasenby, CEO and executive director of OCHN.

“We have to educate this community and make sure there are no barriers to them getting the vaccine,” Lasenby says, adding that there are many causes for vaccine hesitancy among those with SUD.

The vaccine is delivered by injection, and those recovering from SUD involving injected substances can sometimes experience a triggering effect for relapse, Lasenby explains. Others don’t have access to the tools needed to make vaccine appointments, a fact that many people take for granted, she says.

“Those in (residential) treatment know they are where they are for a purpose and can be afraid to leave the safety of the treatment community,” Lasenby says. Triggers and temptations make the risk of relapse very real for those recovering from SUD.

Increased risk

SUD is a disease that increases both the risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing severe illness, yet individuals don’t always recognize that their disorder puts them in a high priority group for getting the vaccine. Environmental circumstances and the physical damage from substance use mean those in the SUD community are more exposed to the virus and have fewer physical defenses against severe illness, Lasenby says.

When recovery is the highest priority, protecting against COVID-19 may not be at the top of the self-care list. “It’s another thing we take for granted. Maybe an individual works a lot, so they put off scheduling routine physicals, but imagine if you are trying to get help for an addiction and are trying to recover. You may know there is a vaccine, but you’re not in the mindset to take advantage of it now,” she says.

So, OCHN is working to bring the vaccine to the people.

“Our plan, in collaboration with our community partners, is to identify those who need the vaccine and create mobile clinics in the area to educate, screen and provide the vaccine,” Lasenby says, adding that confidentiality laws create another barrier to overcome.

You can help loved ones

Check in with family, friends and neighbors with SUD, regardless of how long they have been in recovery, to make sure they know they can get vaccinated. Help them make an appointment or drive them to a walk-in vaccination site.

If they’re hesitant, talk with them about why you chose to get vaccinated. “Remind them that they are important and bring value to your life and you don’t want them to get sick, especially as they are working on their recovery,” Lasenby suggests. “The vaccine is the best tool we have now to help people from experiencing severe illness.”

By supporting loved ones through the vaccine and short-lived but common side effects, you’re positively impacting the critical public health issues of COVID-19 and SUD — and you’re standing together with the medical and behavioral health essential workforce to support families at this important time.

“Through this last year, the attention on mental health and SUD has provided opportunities to reduce stigma and put the importance of behavioral health at the forefront,” Lasenby says.

Oakland Community Health Network leads a service provider network that assists approximately 23,000 Oakland County citizens who are living with an intellectual or developmental disability, mental health challenge, or substance use disorder.

OCHN’s goal is to ensure these individuals have access to services and supports that will improve their health and quality of life. The majority of these individuals have Medicaid insurance coverage.

OCHN also manages a $300 million budget funded in part by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, General Fund, grants, and Oakland County.

Visit OCHN at oaklandchn.org.

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