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Rio Arriba County, Already Fighting Opioid Epidemic, Transfers Lessons Learned To COVID Response

Marisa Demarco
Lauren Reichelt, Health and Human Services director in Rio Arriba County

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, Northern New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County faces new challenges to meet the needs of its residents in recovery. After consistently seeing one of the highest overdose death rates in the country, the county last year received federal grant fundingto ramp up programs that prioritize treatment over incarceration. Your New Mexico Government spoke with Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt about how the county is working to address the interconnected issues of addiction, homelessness, incarceration and unemployment during the pandemic. 

LAUREN REICHELT: I think our first two weeks, we suffered a lot of dislocation because we relied very heavily on face-to-face contact with our clients, and on transporting them, and we had to get pretty creative about finding alternative ways to do things. What we discovered was we had really put together a structure over the last decade and a half for responding to an epidemic. The epidemic we were responding to was a non-infectious epidemic, but it was an epidemic. And then, some of that infrastructure, we were able to rapidly convert into, 'how do you respond to an infectious epidemic'? One of the things that we discovered as we were working on jail diversion: first of all, very quickly, right at the beginning of the epidemic, the State Police did a raid where they arrested a whole bunch of people because we've seen an increase in homelessness, most likely caused by our jail diversion programs. Because, what we're doing by jailing people for substance abuse issues is, if they get picked up say for a probation violation or something, and stuck in the jail – and they're working and they have a home ­– is they lose that job and that home and we've created a new homeless person. So, the police did this raid. Our jails, we had gotten it down to 80 [inmates]. They shot it up to 100. And then we had to quickly start releasing people because the best way to spread COVID-19 is to tightly pack your jail. So, we got it down to 42, which is as low as it's ever been. But, as a result, now we're seeing an increase in homelessness on the streets and all of the problems that go with it. What we're discovering is, if we don't want to see a rise in COVID in November, we have got to develop a solution that doesn't involve housing them in a congregate setting, but still gives them shelter and allows people to seek out and maintain their recovery.

KUNM: Have you all come up with anything yet?

REICHELT: Not yet. I feel like we have attacked the mask issue and the PPE issue, and we've come up with several makeshift solutions for that, but the homeless issue is really intractable and very hard to solve. And we're working on it. And our goal is to have something in place, I would hope, by September.

KUNM: Are you worried about continued funding for your programs through the pandemic?

REICHELT: Oh, I am absolutely terrified about it. In fact, what the state is requiring us to do right now is we have been reliant on grants and we have about 24 of them. That's a nightmare to administer. They've created a new Medicaid billing designation for counties and we are the pilot program. So, we are scrambling to try, as soon as possible, to be able to start filling Medicaid. Right now. We're 100% grant funded. I would like to see no more than one third of our funding come from grants and two thirds come from Medicaid. If we're able to do that, then we stand a much better chance of being sustainable.

KUNM: What are you seeing for people who are in recovery? How is the pandemic affecting folks?

REICHELT: There's been a real disruption, I think, to treatment services. So, initially, all the residential treatment services closed their doors to new clients because they could not risk having somebody come in and infect everybody. But we have worked with our public health department. I have a group, Rosie the Respirators, it's just ad hoc group of sewers making masks. And we got personal protective gear to the health department and they are testing everybody in congregate settings for us. So, now that we're able to do that, we were able to put a protocol in place so that our residential treatment centers can begin accepting folks. We have not been able to transport. So, we are working with UNM to become a Project ECHO hub, so that we can do telehealth. What we're doing now is we're putting a case manager at the homeless shelter, and our goal is to telehealth them in with a Suboxone provider, so we can forestall withdrawal symptoms for them and to try and get them into treatment. We hope eventually to be able to provide those services ourselves.


This is an excerpt from a longer interview that originally aired on our show Your NM Government. Catch it every weeknight at 7:30 p.m. on KUNM, or find it wherever you get your podcasts. Your NM Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.

Edited by KUNM’s Nash Jones.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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