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Addiction center opens early to combat 'people medicating themselves to deal with this pandemic'

Andrew Drazan, Co-founder of Wellbridge, an addiction treatment and research center in Calverton, spoke on Monday, about its grand opening and his plans to help those battling addiction.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Officials at a new drug research and treatment facility that opened this week in Riverhead Town said they did so earlier than expected based on indications that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating challenges for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

“What we see is a tremendous need for our services during this time,” said Andrew Drazan, co-founder and chief executive of the Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research Center in Calverton. “There’s isolation, despair, depression, high anxiety, there’s liquor stores with lines going around the block. Even for those who don’t struggle normally, we’re finding that people are medicating themselves to deal with this pandemic.”

Drazan cited a recent study from The Well Being Trust, a national foundation based in Oakland, California, that advocates for mental, social and spiritual health, which predicted that conditions created by the pandemic, such as isolation and unemployment, could lead to 75,000 deaths nationwide from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide.

Wellbridge — which has partnered with Northwell Health, New York State’s largest health care provider, on the project — opened May 18, weeks ahead of a debut scheduled for early summer.

The inpatient center cost $90 million and includes a detoxification facility, primary care section, research laboratories and a wellness center. It has six buildings, 80 rooms and 130 beds. Wellbridge can treat up to 130 patients when fully staffed with 95 full-time employees; there are currently 61 people on staff. Stays can range from five to seven days for medical stabilization, to 30 days for rehabilitation and 60 days or more for an extended stay.

Dr. Harshal Kirane, Wellbridge’s medical director, said the most telling factor for the potential for increased addiction rates had been high jobless numbers. Kirane added that access to inpatient services for substance use care is a challenge because some facilities that treated such disorders were repurposed to meet COVID-19 specific needs.

“Individuals that would otherwise be accessing care in a hospital or rehab setting right now are really struggling to find those kinds of services,” Kirane said.

Richard Buckman, a founding member of the Long Island Recovery Association, an addiction advocacy group in Hauppauge, said certified recovery peer coaches trained by the association told him many of the clients they work with are using alcohol and drugs again.

“To our population, this pandemic is the perfect storm,” Buckman said. “The solution for addiction is community to eliminate isolation, and the fact that everybody is being forced into isolating has hit another level of anxiety.” 

Jeffrey Kraut, Northwell’s executive vice president of strategy and analytics, was involved with the facility’s planning. Kraut said Thursday that Northwell never had the ability to partner with another entity for residential treatment and that Wellbridge is a “natural extension” of Northwell’s other investments in providing substance use treatment.

“We saw there was a need and this was a unique model,” Kraut said. “They wanted to support our desire to support education and research. We think it’s going to be a wonderful resource for the region.”

Staying well at Wellbridge

  • The $90 million center includes a detoxification facility, primary care section, research laboratories and wellness center.
  • Wellbridge officials said the facility will have several procedures in place to assure safety during the pandemic, including temperature screening, assessment tools, requiring the use of masks, strict social distancing, testing for COVID-19 to each patient and an accompanying family member at home prior to their arrival and hand hygiene procedures.

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