DESPITE the new coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic prohibiting mass gatherings and diverting resources away from substance abuse prevention offices, the drug rehabilitation programs provided by Cebu's four major cities continue to cater to recovering drug addicts.
In the cities of Lapu-Lapu and Talisay, substance abuse prevention officers are using social media to continue their drug rehabilitation sessions with clients while face-to-face sessions are prohibited because of the pandemic.
Garry Lao, who heads the City of Lapu-Lapu Office for Substance Abuse Prevention (Closap), said it has been implementing a virtual counseling program with its 184 outpatient recovering clients through the use of Facebook's Messenger app for two months now.
"It was very hard at first because some of our clients did not even have Facebook accounts," Lao told SunStar Cebu.
He said Closap started introducing virtual counseling sessions last July, when Lapu-Lapu City was placed under general community quarantine (GCQ) status.
It was only a month after when the program was able to take off, Lao added.
For clients with no Facebook accounts, they scheduled a one-by-one meet-up at the Closap office to help them create their Facebook accounts and brief them on how to navigate the application.
Lao said each batch has to attend four virtual sessions a month, with each online session lasting two hours, once a week.
Of the seven batches of clients it now has, he said Batch 7 has the most number of clients with 30, while Batch 6 has the least with 24 clients only.
Fortunately, none of the clients tested positive for illegal drug use in the previous random drug test conducted.
In Talisay City, recovering drug addicts registered in the city's Outpatient Rehab and Aftercare Program have also availed themselves of virtual means to continue their sessions during the pandemic.
Dr. Rey Cesar Bautista, who heads Talisay City's Rural Health Unit (RHU) 1 and who currently spearheads its outpatient rehab program, said social media platforms like Facebook and Zoom have been instrumental in ensuring that their clients remain in contact with them on a daily basis.
Bautista told SunStar Cebu that the Department of Health (DOH) issued an order to temporarily suspend the program to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among their clients.
While their face-to-face sessions were suspended, Bautista had to place some of his personnel, mostly recovering drug addicts who had become mentors, in their Covid-19 task force.
“Some of them were assigned to the RHUs as part of our swab testing team. Some were assigned to monitor PUMs (Persons under Monitoring) and PUIs (Persons under Investigation), while others were assigned to assist our BHERTs (Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams) in providing GPS coordinates of the houses of suspected Covid-19 patients," Bautista said in Cebuano.
But even though his personnel were assigned to various Covid-19 related tasks, their sessions with their clients had to continue.
Bautista said that since not all of their clients were based in Talisay City, they decided to organize virtual sessions through FB Messenger and Zoom to keep their sessions going.
Bautista also wanted to minimize face-to-face sessions, since at that time, the number of Covid-19 cases in Cebu was very high.
Talisay City's Outpatient Rehab and Aftercare Program currently has at least 300 clients.
In Mandaue City, members of its City Anti-Drug Abuse Council (Cadac) plan to pursue online counseling after they suspended their drug rehabilitation program last March.
Ligaya Lakambini Dargantes, medical officer for the Mandaue City Substance Abuse Prevention Office (MCSAPO), said their program requires social gatherings and face-to-face counseling sessions, which cannot be undertaken amid the pandemic as it would expose the participants to the risk of contracting Covid-19.
Dargantes said the Cadac officers are considering pursuing online counseling sessions, but the plans needs further study, with the minimum health standards needed to be considered, as clients still have to go to a certain place to acquire online counseling.
The Cadac plans to install computers with web cameras in a place where the drug dependents can take their online counseling.
Dargantes said they will start with a pilot barangay, determine the challenges, and only later, replicate it in other barangays.
"Drug dependency is a very challenging illness, especially during the trying times as these drug-dependent individuals will return to taking drugs especially when they are stressed. That is why it is important that the council is in place," she said.
Despite the challenges brought by the pandemic, Dargantes said they have also had their share of success in their battle to rid Mandaue City of illegal drugs.
They already produced six graduates early this year before the community quarantine was implemented.
They have already endorsed these graduates to the City Social Welfare and Services (CSWS) for their employment support.
Of the six graduates, four were employed as part of the counseling team attending to Covid-19 patients as they are well trained in counseling.
But while the cities of Talisay, Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu are pursuing virtual means to continue their rehab programs, officials of Cebu City's Office for Substance Abuse Prevention (Cosap) said they had just resumed their face-to-face rehab sessions this month.
Jonah John Rodriguez, Cosap head, said they accept only 10 persons per session in compliance with quarantine protocols.
Cosap currently has 977 clients, mostly persons deprived of liberty (PDLs). Of the 977 clients, 267 are set to graduate from their drug rehab course.
Rodriguez said that aside from face-to-face sessions, his personnel are also providing modules to their clients as a way to continue their sessions.
Despite the use of online and modular means to continue rehab sessions, there have been challenges in implementing the local governments’ drug rehab programs during the pandemic.
Lao admitted that virtual counseling is not as efficient as the face-to-face session which enables social interaction. But he said this is their way of adapting to the new normal while working on their plans to resume physical sessions by November.
Lao said that aside from poor connectivity issues, they have also had to bear with the fact that their clients cannot be fully focused on the online session at times, considering they are in their homes.
To address this, he said, they have to conduct a roll call three times: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of each session.
Closap was created on Sept. 12, 2019 with its pioneer batch composed of 26 recovering clients who underwent a six-month rehabilitation program. Of the number, 25 completers received their certificate of attainment in a virtual graduation rite last Aug. 31.
Lao said despite the imposition of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) protocols, they made sure to still get in touch with them using the contact details they provided to Closap.
“In monitoring them, we also contact their spouses, their children and even their workmates to see if they have not strayed from their path. In evaluating them, we conduct random drug tests every now and then,” he said.
In Talisay, Bautista admitted that monitoring his clients' sobriety was a challenge when they initiated the virtual sessions.
But he said he left it to his clients' conscience if they want to remain clean or not.
"It really depends on them if they want to change or not. Since most of them are availing of plea-bargaining agreements from the court, they have no choice but to comply or they get sent back to jail," Bautista added.
For Dargantes, the lack of manpower is a challenge in continuing their drug rehab program.
Like in Talisay City, Dargantes said the personnel assigned to the drug recovery clinic now also handle the city's Covid-19 response, which is one of the reasons they cannot focus on the drug rehabilitation program.
Rodriguez faced a similar problem in managing his clients in Cebu City.
He said Cosap staff were assigned to man the Mayor’s Assistance Hotline and at the command center since March 21, 2020, which forced them to temporarily stop the holding of rehab sessions.
However, local substance abuse prevention officers said close coordination with various offices served as a factor in ensuring that their clients remained monitored even during the pandemic.
Lao said he is closely coordinating with City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO), the concerned barangay captains and their Barangay Anti-Drug Abuse Council in monitoring those who have graduated from their drug rehab program.
In fact, just last week, Lao received a recommendation from the CSWDO to terminate one of their graduate clients who was arrested for illegal gambling.
After the DOH lifted the suspension of their drug rehab programs, Bautista said they immediately conducted face-to-face sessions with their clients earlier this month, with clients required to wear face shields and masks while in contact with their fellow recovering drug addicts and mentors, and strictly adhering to physical distancing.
Eighty percent of his clients so far have returned to attending face-to-face sessions, Bautista said.
This month, Bautista and his personnel are conducting face-to-face sessions at the open gym of the Archdiocesan Shrine of Sta. Teresa de Avila in Barangay Poblacion, Talisay City.
Bautista said the local clergy has been very supportive of the city's programs to rehabilitate recovering drug addicts.
To monitor their progress, Bautista is requiring his clients to go to Talisay City at least twice a week to undergo a mandatory drug test.
In Lapu-Lapu City, Lao said they also plan to implement minimum health protocols once their face-to-face sessions resume.
These may include not using the air conditioner for the meantime, and imposing a bring your own ballpen policy, and the mandatory wearing of masks and face shields, among others. (WBS, JJL, KFD, JKV)