By Robert J. Budsock
Like virtually every organization in the country, Integrity House has been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic. This did not take us by surprise. Having successfully operated New Jersey’s premier substance use treatment and recovery organization for 52 years, we have extensive contingency plans in place to guide us through a wide variety of potential situations.
In the early stages of the novel coronavirus’ presence in the United States, our quality and safety team reviewed our protocols and reinforced action steps with all managers. We laid out a series of steps that would take us through what we correctly anticipated would be three stages of our COVID-19 response: prevention, containment and control.
Based on the best available data from public health professionals as well as the guidance of our quality and safety committee, we implemented prevention protocols, according to CDC guidelines, with the aim of controlling the entrance of COVID-19 into our Newark and Secaucus campuses, where our residential programs are. However, as our quality and safety committee predicted, we soon had to shift to containment mode. Integrity House, like many other healthcare providers, faces a unique set of challenges during this pandemic because of the nature of our programs and the type of care we provide. Our long-term residential program is a therapeutic community and the care we deliver is built around extensive peer interaction and support. We live and work in close quarters. We recognize these unique challenges and continue to do everything we can to encourage and enforce responsible social distancing, and to meet and exceed the guidance and standards established by the CDC and NJ Department of Health to minimize the potential for a COVID-19 spread in any Integrity House program.
Further compounding our containment difficulties, residents in our halfway house programs, as part of the program, do have gainful employment within the community, many performing essential service jobs that must continue for the public welfare. When these residents are out fulfilling their job responsibilities, we do not have any control over their person-to-person contacts.
On Sunday, April 5th we received confirmation that an individual enrolled and residing in our halfway house at Newark’s 49 Lincoln Park had contracted the COVID-19 virus. Tragically, they passed away at University Hospital on Tuesday, April 7th. The gentleman was 67-years-old and had pre existing medical conditions. We are heartbroken over this loss to our Integrity House family, and our thoughts and prayers remain with his loved ones.
As soon as we learned that a resident of our 49 Lincoln Park halfway house program tested positive for COVID-19 we immediately tested all of the other residents who were living in that facility. Several members of this program also tested positive. In an abundance of caution, and to further contain the spread of COVID-19 within our program, on Wednesday, April 15th we made the decision to test all of our clients and staff in residential programs. The testing conducted within our programs was also driven by concerns of the real possibility of asymptomatic carriers; obtaining knowledge of the level of spread was important data to have in order to inform next steps.
As a result of our testing and containment efforts, we understand the extent of COVID-19 within our program and have entered into the control phase. Several of our clients and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, and we are doing everything in our power to be sure that they are properly and adequately separated and quarantined. Their symptoms are monitored multiple times daily and reviewed by our staff. Medical attention is promptly provided if/when symptoms indicate a need for medical intervention, and anyone who the medical staff feels should be hospitalized is immediately transported to the hospital Emergency Department. A few clients have opted to leave Integrity House and continue treatment via telehealth.
In addition, we have contracted with a professional cleaning/disinfecting company that is thoroughly disinfecting all physical areas and surfaces in both Newark and Secaucus, using Decon-30, a hospital-grade, botanical-based EPA-approved product verified to kill the Coronavirus and to remain effective for days.
To the best of our knowledge, we are the only program in New Jersey that took the step of testing everyone in an effort to contain and control the virus. The alternative would be to not test and to potentially allow this to fester for months. We believe that with our approach, we will be virus-free in a reasonable period of time, at which point we will tighten controls on who comes in contact with our clients. We will also institute additional protocols that will include rapid testing at admission, and a reinforcement of the mandatory two-week quarantine upon admission.
Our staff and clients are vigilantly monitored for any signs and symptoms of the virus, as well as making sure we all follow prevention protocols, including social distancing, cleaning, sanitizing, and wearing face coverings.
We have multiple clients and families who are experiencing fear and anger through this frightening time. This is understandable. Our staff are calling all families with test results, and informing them of the steps we are taking to quarantine, monitor and see to the well-being of these clients. Rest assured that the health and well-being of all of the Integrity House family – clients, staff, volunteers, and vendors – is my absolute number one priority.
The question has been asked, why, after the first identified case of COVID-19, did we not close our entire program. Obviously, it would be impossible, and in fact, irresponsible to simply “shut down” Integrity House programs. Many of our clients would have no other place to go, and most are in the midst of treatment programs that would be irreparably disrupted by a shut down. Our contingency planning has anticipated a situation similar to this, and we are acting on those plans accordingly. That said, we have identified emergency discharge plans for clients who meet certain medical criteria.
Please be assured that Integrity House is strictly adhering to recommended procedures and guidelines as directed by both the CDC and NJ Department of Health.
These are extraordinary times.
Never in my life did I think that we would encounter a situation as difficult as the one we are facing today. I am so proud of the dedication, innovation, and creativity of our staff, who are helping and supporting our clients, and each other, through what seems like impossible circumstances. I can’t thank them enough for the work that they do.
Our clients, and their families, depend on Integrity House to help them achieve recovery. The remarkable job our staff is doing to fight addiction while keeping the organization safe is nothing short of awe inspiring.
These are high-stress times. For many in our state, COVID-19 has resulted in job loss, food and financial insecurity, sickness, and even death. We know that emotional pain can be just as profound as physical pain. Throughout this entire pandemic, the well-being of our clients and our staff has been our paramount concern. This has always been our solemn commitment at Integrity House. It is a commitment that is ironclad and one on which we will never waver.