The COVID-19 pandemic could forever change the way New Jersey residents connect to and utilize services related to substance use disorder.

And professionals in the business of providing treatment welcome the expanded approach of delivering help.

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"In many ways we started to serve more people because of COVID, because we had backdoor accessibility to programs," said Connie Greene, vice president of the RWJBarnabas Health Institute for Prevention and Recovery in Eatontown. "We are providing telephones for individuals that don't have the opportunity to communicate. And telehealth and virtual have created a new environment for recovery."

Face-to-face supports prior to the health crisis would serve about 200 people per week at the institute, Greene said. Now with remote options, the weekly the count is about 1,000.

"I think we're all changing the way we do business," Greene said. "The ability to have continuous support through virtual is now a new way of operating."

Greene made her comments Tuesday afternoon during a virtual town hall about substance use disorder treatment during the pandemic and beyond.

According to Erin Zerbo, director of the Northern New Jersey Medication-Assisted Treatment Center of Excellence, disruptions caused by the pandemic were relieved greatly when audio-only visits were permitted under Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance companies. Barriers that kept individuals from initial or follow-up visits, such as transportation and childcare, were no longer an issue.

"I think we need to maintain that access after the pandemic. Let's make that a permanent thing going forward," Zerbo said.

Adjustments to the health emergency's initial limitations were not immediate. As service providers stopped or limited admissions into programs in March and April, people seeking help also feared in-person exposure due to the health threat, according to Robert Budsock, president and CEO of Integrity House in Newark.

But the same providers today are up and running fully or close to it, as the Garden State attempts to crawl out of its coronavirus pause.

"We're seeing an uptick in referrals for services, and I am hoping that it's the uptick in referrals that's resulting in the leveling off of overdose deaths," Budsock said.

The number of deadly overdoses in New Jersey jumped 17% in the first half of 2020, compared to the same six months in 2019. July was the first month in 2020 that did not see a year-over-year increase in the number of overdose deaths, according to preliminary figures from the state. There were 32 fewer deaths in August 2020 compared to August 2019.

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