Juneau’s substance abuse treatment clinic reopens with limited capacity as demand grows

A member of Bartlett Regional Hospital’s medical staff walks through a newly converted spillover shelter for COVID-19 patients on Monday, April 7, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. The shelter is designed to house patients who need medical care, but not critical medical care from the city hospital. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

After seven months, Juneau’s residential substance abuse treatment facility reopens this week.

Although Rainforest Recovery Center will limit the number of patients for now, providers say the need in and outside the community is growing.

Bartlett Regional Hospital’s Rainforest Recovery Center can typically hold 12 patients at a time.

Now that they’re reopening, they’ve cut that capacity in half. Chief Behavioral Health Officer Bradley Grigg said they’re taking it slow to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“We would be fools to think that six beds is going to meet the need. But we’re doing it based off pure safety and caution,” Grigg said.

Since the pandemic began, Rainforest has shifted some rehab services online, offering outpatient treatment for the first time in recent memory.

Grigg said they now have more than 40 patients getting counseling virtually.

“So if they meet criteria to get in, and we don’t have a bed quite yet, we’ve got outpatient services that can support them until we can get them in there,” Grigg said.

They’ll only accept people from Juneau and other parts of Southeast Alaska. Patients need a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of admission, and they’ll be tested weekly. Masks are required for patients and staff in common areas.

They hope to be able to expand their admissions eventually, but for now, it’s easier and lower risk to focus on helping people locally.

“What we don’t want to do is have to bring people in and have to quarantine them automatically,” Grigg said. “Once they’re here, we’d like for them to get started in treatment as soon as they’re here and we think that local is just going to be the best at that point.”

Hospital staff move equipment into the Rainforest Recovery Center. City officials converted the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center into an emergency spillover shelter for COVID-19 patients at Bartlett Regional Hospital. The shelter is designed to house patients who don’t need critical medical care. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

According to the statewide dashboard that tracks how many beds are available, there are about two dozen other residential treatment facilities around the state.

Many of them have open beds, but waitlists range from a few days to several months long.

One complicating factor is staffing. That’s been an issue for Rainforest. Grigg said part of the delay in reopening was due to construction on a new detox unit at the facility.

Now that it’s completed, patients going through withdrawal will be treated there, instead of across the street at the hospital. But since detox is a medical service, that means nursing staff needs to be on hand 24 hours a day.

“We went from seven 12-hour shifts, now to 21 12-hour shifts,” Grigg said. “So it’s a significant increase.”

He said they’re recruiting and have already hired new staff. They’ll also rely on travel nurses. They hope to have a new withdrawal management unit open in a few weeks. But things can change quickly in a pandemic. So they have to be flexible.

Rainforest patients were sent home in March, and the facility was converted into a backup site in case the hospital became overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Although it never came to that, the equipment is still on-site just in case.

“So far, we’ve been fortunate to not have to use it. But if we have to stand it back up again, we know that we can do that pretty quickly,” he said.

For now, Grigg is more worried about what this winter will bring in terms of mental health crises.

“We have new folks who are struggling that have never struggled like this before, to where it’s obvious there that substance use is on the rise, whether it be alcohol or other drugs,” he said.

The pandemic is producing a lot of stress and social isolation, major factors that contribute to substance abuse.

“It’s increasing among children, it’s increasing among families, adults,” he said. “So that’s the bigger concern for me, of what is this going to look like five months from now?”

According to the latest data from the Department of Health and Social Services, there are roughly 145 people across Alaska waiting to get into facilities to treat drug and alcohol issues.