Cornerstone of Recovery senior staff members (from left) Dan Schweickhardt, director of admissions; Steve McGrew, CEO; Dr. Scott Anderson, clinical director; and Dr. Fred "Kip" Wenger, medical director.
Cornerstone of Recovery senior staff members (from left) Dan Schweickhardt, director of admissions; Steve McGrew, CEO; Dr. Scott Anderson, clinical director; and Dr. Fred "Kip" Wenger, medical director.

The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has brought many aspects of life to a screeching halt, but addiction and alcoholism continue unabated.

In fact, the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus may exacerbate the nation’s substance abuse problems, Dr. Adam Leventhal, founding director of the Health, Emotion and Addiction Laboratory at the University of Southern California, told Business Insider this week.

Hood Hall, the patient residence tower on the campus of Cornerstone of Recovery.

“People are dealing with trauma and stress, and we know that other stressors and traumatic incidents — other types of disasters — have led people to increase their substance use,” he said, pointing to a 2006 University of South Carolina study that showed survivors of Hurricane Katrina consumed alcohol and suffered alcohol-related complications at a much higher rate.

The potential for individuals to turn to alcohol and drugs as a means of relief during this time is another reason Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center located in Blount County, is considered an essential business during Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s stay-at-home order. To recognize the professionalism of Cornerstone staff members who work face-to-face with patients, the facility’s Leadership Team announced this week that all frontline employees will receive a $2 per hour raise.

“Those who greet, those who clean, those who look after the needs of the patients and those that counsel patients on campus will have this pay added to their checks beginning with the pay period that started Monday, March 30, and will continue until further notice,” Cornerstone CEO Steve McGrew told the staff in a company-wide email this week. “We are all in uncharted waters and are trying the best we can to balance our mission, the safety of our patients and staff and the continuing viability of our organization. I continue to be amazed by the cheerful, loving spirit of everyone as I walk through the halls and buildings at Cornerstone and Stepping Stone (to Recovery, Cornerstone’s TennCare-based facility also located in Blount County).”

In addition, McGrew announced, the facility’s leadership and board of directors are expanding lunch options to staff members as a way of preventing the need to leave campus and at the same time support local businesses.

“We plan to treat staff periodically with catered comfort foods from locally owned small businesses as well,” McGrew said. “We want to reach out to places in Blount and Knox counties to give staff members a respite from our normal food choices, which are typically great in our on-campus dining hall anyway. During this time, we think it is important to help members of our local business community during their time of need while rewarding those dedicated to serving our patients.”

For several weeks now, Cornerstone and Stepping Stone staff members have been implementing stringent pre-screening protocols for patients seeking admission, and have taken steps to restrict non-essential visits to the facility. Family visitation and in-person family therapy sessions have been canceled until further notice, family members who bring a loved one to Cornerstone or Stepping Stone for treatment are met in the parking areas of the facilities and new admissions are subjected to a rigorous physical examination for signs of possible COVID-19 infection.

Such measures make for extra work by the organization’s staff members, who continue to look for new therapies and activities on campus to fulfill the facility’s mission of drug and alcohol treatment. Attendance at outside recovery meetings has been curtailed until further notice, and patients attending Intensive Outpatient Treatment from home are now being counseled via the HIPAA-secured video conference network Zoom.

“We never want to falter on providing the best patient care possible and delivering hope, healing and recovery to those who struggle with addictions,” McGrew said. “The numbers of people who die of addiction and addiction-related issues will most likely far exceed any deaths related to this very contagious virus.”

In addition, Cornerstone and Stepping Stone staff are preparing for the aforementioned expected uptick in substance use by individuals who turn to drugs and alcohol as a coronavirus coping mechanism.

“Our services are needed now more than ever,” McGrew added. “Depression will be a major issue in the near future, and anxiety is already rising. You all know that addiction thrives on these uncertain times. As health care providers you all provide much needed treatment to those suffering, even in times of a pandemic like this.”