COVID-19 and the Social Work Response — The Need for Long-Term Solutions
By Dawn Whitten, DSW
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has forever changed life as we know it here in the United States and around the world. Long-held traditions such as shaking hands and greetings of hugging and kissing have now become taboo. Entire countries have been shut down along with business and day-to-day activities. Sports events, weddings, religious gatherings, and practices have all been cancelled. Fear, panic, and loneliness are now daily occurrences for many individuals, groups, and communities. Life has changed and with it the climate of health care and behavioral health care in the United States has been forever altered. The new normal is upon us and many helping professions have had to learn how to assimilate swiftly and efficiently to serve their clients well.
Rethinking Service Delivery
Extended Hospital Stays
Efforts to accommodate increasing patient admissions and alleviate gridlock has steered many urban hospitals to transfer patients temporarily to other hospitals to await a bed opening in an ECF for short-term rehabilitation. Extended hospital stays impact patient and family emotional well-being. Hospitals and ECFs have halted all visitation from family and friends, contributing to patient feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. Hospitals have rapidly developed alternative ways for patients and families to communicate. Many are relying on electronic means of communicating. FaceTime, Zoom, or some other form of video communication service are being utilized to help families feel connected to one another. There are entire teams being dedicated to identifying vulnerable patients and families in need of additional support. Many hospitals offer remote counseling services and guided meditation services for staff, patients, and families. New ideas and services are being generated daily to help individuals cope. Vulnerable populations are of great concern during this pandemic.
Protective Services and Vulnerable Populations
Likewise, the elder population is suffering from increased isolation from family and friends. Community gatherings are postponed, and even religious gatherings have halted. These socialization settings are what often keep this vulnerable population connected to the larger world. Adult children are now fearful of transmitting the virus to their parents, causing them to limit or eliminate visits. The quarantine has left older adults so isolated and disconnected from human contact that mental health and cognitive decline can be exacerbated. For many elders, there is a rise in somatic complaints, increasing their risk of self-medication with drugs such as opiates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2013).
I have experienced an increase in both inpatient and outpatient requests for treatment and resources. Some individuals have even been asked to leave the home as family members are no longer tolerating the behaviors associated with addiction. Individuals turn to the emergency departments nationwide for assistance. For those who agree to inpatient detoxification and/or rehabilitation, there is difficulty with finding facilities accepting new referrals, as again there is fear of bringing the virus into the treatment facility. These agencies are having extended stays as well, due to discharge planning issues. For instance, families refuse to have the individual with a substance use disorder return home, due to irreparable damage to the family unit. This often leaves the agency social workers with the task of finding housing for these individuals. In pre–COVID-19 days this could be a daunting task even on a good day. With an active pandemic, this task has become nearly impossible, again leading to extended stays. Shelters throughout the country are at capacity with displaced individuals. Many individuals experiencing homelessness are being placed in hotels/motels to maintain social distancing guidelines. Many communities have had to pass emergency legislation to accommodate this increase.
Social work is a profession that has historically experienced significant reductions in local and federal domains. The unique expertise and skills possessed by these helping professionals during this crisis have established a distinct demand for their unique services, acknowledgement, and respect. Social workers have been navigating new and innovative ways to provide care to individuals and communities for decades and we will continue to do so, pandemic or not.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting effects for years to come. The hope is that health care leaders can come together and make long-lasting, positive changes to the way our nation provides health care and behavioral health services.
— Dawn Whitten, DSW, is a medical social worker at Sharon Hospital-Nuvance Health.
National Institute on Aging. (2019, April 23). Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2013). Using alcohol to relieve your pain: What are the risks? https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/using-alcohol-to-relieve-your-pain.