While we haven’t reached the end of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve spent some time reflecting with my team on what has worked well — and what we’ve learned — about how to manage a crisis together. Here are our top five lessons learned that we will take with us as we continue to navigate this crisis, and any new crises we may face in the future.
Lesson 1: No Matter What Happens, Keep Moving
In the early days of the pandemic, with information (and misinformation) swirling around us through news reports, concerned family and friends, colleagues and more, it was tempting to find ourselves paralyzed with indecision. Do we remain open? Do we close our doors and self-quarantine proactively? What steps should we take to help protect our staff and program participants?
Thankfully, our board of directors is very engaged, and they quickly realized that one of the ways they could support our team was to help relieve some of their stress. Staff shared with us that they were feeling pressure between coming to work in order to earn a paycheck (but putting their health at risk) and staying at home (but not being able to pay their bills). As a leadership team, we felt it was important to make sure our staff didn’t have to choose between their health and their paycheck.
One of Healing Transitions’ key values is to take care of people, and we wanted to convey to our staff that we wanted to find ways to care for them. Rather than becoming overwhelmed with the needs we faced, we identified a key need — staff health and well-being — and worked with our board and our human resources team to develop an updated paid time-off benefit that would allow staff to have up to one additional week of paid time off. If staff exhausted this and still needed additional support, we also made it clear that we would work with each individual to help develop a plan for them. (This was developed prior to the CARES Act and additional legislation that has since been passed to help support employees).
Two-thirds of our staff are in recovery and are immunocompromised or manage other underlying conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to this disease, recovery relapse and even homelessness. By acting quickly, we were able to remove one of the stress factors in their lives (financial anxiety) and communicate that we value our team and stand by them, particularly when things get difficult and crises emerge. We also have a few staff with pre-existing conditions, like cancer treatments and COPD, and were unable to continue working in their current positions. We met with each of them and found different jobs on campus that would allow them to continue working from a safer vantage point. I’m proud to share that, despite the enormous challenges we’ve faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we haven’t had to lay off any staff.
Lesson 2: Get Creative
Because of some of the health and safety precautions we’ve implemented recently, including working remotely, we had to find new ways to work and communicate. For our team, this was particularly challenging because we operate a 350-person, two-campus long-term recovery program and detox shelter for both men and women. Many of our participants are immunocompromised or have other underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to illness. In addition, while in our long-term recovery program, the majority of our participants don’t typically have internet access in their rooms, but as the world became more virtual, we had to figure out ways to adapt.
We started having daily Zoom calls with all of our staff. We also started having regular virtual calls with our board of directors and our capital campaign steering committee, daily or weekly check-ins with our operations teams and more frequent all-staff email updates as the situation was unfolding. Since we couldn’t meet in person, we added additional computers to our campuses and invited participants to attend online support groups.
The people we serve who have gone through homelessness, addiction and often abuse can feel very fearful, isolated and alone. One of our biggest concerns was figuring out how to maintain communication and camaraderie between leadership and staff, staff and participants, and participants and their family and friends in order to prevent people from feeling alone.
One of the most difficult things we had to do was to make the decision to temporarily close both of our campuses to new participants. On March 25, county health officials told us we needed to take this dramatic step because of some concerns about the potential spread of the virus on our campuses. This was the first time in our nearly 20-year history that we had to close our doors. That guidance was so against our ethos; we “make room at the inn,” even when there’s no room. We pull out a mat, grab a few extra blankets, and welcome anyone who needs our services. We simply don’t turn people away.
It was incredibly difficult because the needs of addiction and homelessness in our community haven’t gone away simply because the virus has arrived. In a two-week period in March, five former participants had died in a number of different ways related to their addiction. Individuals and their families were still being impacted by addition in the midst of the pandemic.
Taking a note from our earlier lesson — we kept moving and got creative. We reached out to community partners to see if there was a way to open a new temporary detox shelter in the county. This was something no one had ever done before, but through the help of some amazing community partners, including Alliance Health, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Southeastern Healthcare, UNC Health, Wake County health officials and WakeMed, we were able to find a space, staff it and set up operations within just a few weeks’ time. Today, the shelter is running at full capacity and serving dozens of men and women in our county. Our hope is that we will be able to open our campus up again soon, but until that time, I’m relieved to know that when someone arrives at our doors, we’re able to direct them to other life-changing resources nearby.
Chris Budnick, MSW, LCSW, LCAS, CCS is the executive director at Healing Transitions and has been working in the addiction treatment and recovery field since 1993. Chris became a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor in 1998. He graduated from East Carolina University in 2000 with a Master of Social Work. He has been fully licensed as a Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist since 2001; a Licensed Clinical Social Worker since 2002; and a Clinical Certified Supervisor since 2003. He was an intern from 1999 to 2000 with Healing Transitions and has been employed with them since 2000.
Chris has been an adjunct instructor with the North Carolina State University Department of Social Work since 2002, and has served on their Advisory Board since 2003, serving as chair on two different occasions. He also serves on the Recovery Africa Board.
Chris has conducted training and presentations nationally and internationally. Some of his most rewarding work has been collaborating with Mr. William White and Mr. Boyd Pickard on the history of mutual aid recovery fellowships.