COVID-19 Crisis: More Testing Needed, Online Support For Alcoholics
NOEL KING, HOST:
So we know these COVID-19 lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders can't last forever. That means states need to put systems in place that will make it safe to lift those restrictions. NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking into what needs to happen exactly. Good morning, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: So last week, we started hearing about phased approaches for reopening.
AUBREY: That's right.
KING: Can you talk about what that means and whether states are ready for it?
AUBREY: Sure. Well, the state public health officials I've spoken to say they are scrambling. What they are trying to do is quickly hire people and recruit volunteers to do contact tracing. And they're also trying to expand rapid testing.
Now, the vice president says there's enough testing capacity now for states ready to move to the next phase, but many public health experts disagree. I spoke to Bill Hanage. He's an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. He told me that it's just too soon.
BILL HANAGE: I would say, at the moment, that the state of testing is such that we're not really ready to be moving into this kind of Stage 1 anywhere.
AUBREY: You know, so think about it this way - states need to get to the point where they can identify an infected person quickly, then get to all of the close contacts of that person and get them to quarantine. And for this to work, it's predicated on the ability to do testing rapidly and efficiently.
KING: And this is where it gets really interesting because this has been going on now for weeks. We've been hearing from the White House that there are enough tests - millions have been done.
AUBREY: That's right.
KING: And yet, we just heard from an epidemiologist say, no, we don't have enough tests; we're not there yet. When you talk to state officials, what do they say?
AUBREY: Well, many state officials say there are still supply issues with the materials needed to run the lab tests. In addition, there are now two companies offering these quick point-of-care tests. So these are the tests done in doctor's offices or hospitals. They run on the same platform as a quick flu or strep test. You get the results in minutes or a few hours.
Now, these are very important going forward because you can't effectively isolate sick people and track their contacts if it takes days to get a test result. But there are limited supplies of these test kits. I spoke to Abbott - that's the company that makes the 15-minute test. Now, they can produce about 50,000 kits a day, which may sound like a lot. But the demand is higher, and they're working to expand this.
But for now, I spoke to the health commissioner of Pennsylvania, Rachel Levine, and she says there are obstacles with both kinds of tests - the lab tests and the quick point-of-care tests.
RACHEL LEVINE: There have been significant challenges, particularly getting the specific chemicals and reagents, so we're hoping that the federal government will be able to play a bigger role. And we're working to try to get more and more of the test kits so that we can expand the testing.
AUBREY: And we've heard this from other states, too. Now, the president said last night that the administration has procured millions of test swabs, which is a start. And he says they'll talk to the governors later today about testing capacity and efforts to help.
KING: The twist here is that health officials are worried about COVID-19, but they're also worried about millions of people being out of work - because that's not healthy either, right?
AUBREY: That's right. That's exactly right. I mean, it is clear in the scientific literature that poverty and economic hard times take their toll on health. Economic hardship can exacerbate chronic conditions. It can obviously limit access to health care. And for many people who are dealing with addiction or alcoholism, this shutdown has been tough. I've spoken to a bunch of people in recovery. Phillip O'Hara (ph) lives in Rahway, N.J. - he's been sober about four years - and also Mary (ph). She did not want to share her last name. She lives in Jersey City. She's in her mid-20s. She has a young daughter.
MARY: I've had nights where, you know, I put my daughter to sleep and I'm just sitting in my living room alone and trying to, you know, not drink.
PHILLIP O'HARA: My anxiety was through the roof. It was really, really, really bad. A lot of people are really having a hard time not picking up a drink right now to handle that fear and anxiety.
AUBREY: You know, O'Hara told me that since he's been sober, he tries to help other people do the same. He attends a lot of meetings. He speaks in schools. He stays super busy. But all of that stopped abruptly with this pandemic, and it's been tough.
KING: It's tough because it sounds like, for a lot of the people you're talking to, it's just eliminated their support system.
AUBREY: That's right. And Mary says for her, you know, this whole situation - you know, worrying about family members who may be exposed, being cooped up with nowhere to go - it can really wear you down.
MARY: Even just, like, going outside and seeing everybody in masks, like, is sort of triggering, you know? It's, like, scary. So yeah, one of my first thoughts is to, like, let me have a glass of wine or let me have a drink and I won't think about it and - or it will go away.
AUBREY: But of course, that doesn't work that way, right? And the support meetings that she's used to are not happening. They've been canceled.
KING: So what is she doing for support?
AUBREY: Well, like everything else that has gone virtual during this pandemic, help with sobriety has, too. Part of the National Institutes of Health, the NIAAA, they have a patient navigator online. It has links to a bunch of treatment options. Many have virtual components. And Phillip and Mary both say they're using an app. It's called Loosid. It's a platform to connect sober people. And as you might imagine, traffic to this app has shot up a lot since the shutdown began.
MARY: If I am having a hard day and I am, like, just wanting to drink, instead of doing that, I can sort of hop onto the app, get in to, like, a chat room or a hotline and connect with somebody who can help kind of, like, talk me through it, talk me down. And you know, just really giving me that sense of community has been really helpful.
AUBREY: And Phillip O'Hara says he's been spending a lot of time in these virtual chat rooms, too.
O'HARA: As I sit inside these group chats and I see somebody that's saying, you know, like, I have 30 days sober and I want a drink, and, like, that's where I could chime in and talk to this person. And then I get to give them my experience. I get to give them my strength, my hope. You know, I stay sober by connecting with these people.
AUBREY: So this is just one way people are connecting and helping each other during these extraordinary times.
KING: Yeah - very nice to hear those voices. NPR's Allison Aubrey - Allison, thanks for this.
AUBREY: Thank you so much.
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