Publicly-funded treatment clinics and rehabilitation centers in Victoria, Australia are facing a rising demand, but COVID-19 has severely reduced the capacity of these services. This has left many people needing alcohol use disorder treatment waiting and exposed to harm.
This is not only an Australian challenge but a worldwide one, as many jurisdictions are facing growing alcohol harm and declining commitment to provide much needed help and support.

The number of beds available at these residential facilities had to be cut down during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic to adhere to physical distancing rules. While the situation has improved, the capacity is still not at full, thus leaving people in dire need of services on long waiting lists.

One of the largest residential treatment clinics, Uniting ReGen at Ivanhoe, in Melbourne’s north-east, reportedly has 90 people on their waiting list. These people have been waiting for up to two months without access to services.

Another example is Odyssey House. With three sites it is one of the largest residential rehabilitation services in the state of Victoria, and has almost 300 people waiting between six weeks and three months to get in. In the height of the pandemic they had to cut down capacity by 40 to 50%. Since then they have increased the number of available beds but are yet to reach full capacity.

More alcohol harm, fewer healthcare service

People who are seeking treatment and rehabilitation services are usually in dire need of help. Waiting can lead to their resolve fading. Waiting could also be life threatening.

There are many people who would have developed problems with alcohol use undetected during lockdown. Therefore, the treatment and rehabilitation services are expecting a surge in demand in early 2021 of people who cannot wait any longer to get help.

The pandemic has also exacerbated a long-term shortage of publicly-funded alcohol treatment beds in Victoria.

Victoria has had the second lowest availability of residential alcohol treatment and rehabilitation facilities.

Currently the Victorian Government is working to meet this need. But COVID-19 has affected the capacity of facilities heavily.

The Victorian Government aims to increase the number of residential rehabilitation beds in the state to 492 by July 2021.

The impacts of coronavirus on the alcohol rehabilitation system are continuing to be monitored,” said a Victorian government spokesperson.

We’ve invested $52.1 million in new residential rehabilitation facilities in the Gippsland, Hume and Barwon regions — the new facilities will provide care and support to an additional 900 Victorians every year.”

Government of Victoria, Australia

Early on in the pandemic, concerns emerged about changing alcohol habits and norms posing a real danger to families and communities. But calls for urgent action to tackle alcohol harm and provide help to all who need it were not heeded back then.

Worldwide problem: rising need for mental health support amidst shortfall of service availability

Victoria and Australia are not the only jurisdictions that are facing the double burden of rising demand for mental health support, including alcohol treatment, and a dramatic shortfall of service availability.

In the UK, rising alcohol use disorder cases are pushing health services to the brink. Alcohol use disorders and alcohol dependence were a major problem already before the COVID-19 pandemic. But now harm is increasing and further straining underfunded health services.

Being in a similar situation and having declared alcohol retail an “essential service” New York State went the other way in their policy response. The state government decided in July 2020, to cut funding to services for addiction treatment and recovery. Such a decision illustrates ill-informed political commitments as the fallout of the coronavirus crisis is already fueling an addiction epidemic in New York and across the United States.

Already in June 2020, Canadian researchers were warning about the public health crisis of alcohol unfolding beneath COVID-19.

Also in other countries, such as Poland, Germany, emerged growing concerns about increasing alcohol use disorder and addiction while mental health service provision was and is faltering.

For example, high anxiety and unhealthy coping mechanisms during COVID-19 are expected to lead to a new wave of alcohol problems in Poland. Psychologists and addiction therapists voiced their concerns on how high anxiety during COVID-19 may lead to increased alcohol problems.

In Germany, for example, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues on, more and more people with alcohol and other substance use problems have begun to seek help from the nationwide addiction counselling centers. However, these centers are under-funded threatening the sustainable provision of this much needed service.

And even beyond the major problem of rising alcohol use disorder and addiction in many countries, WHO Europe has warned about other alcohol harms, too.

Reports from violence prevention helplines across the WHO European region are indicating rising cases of interpersonal violence during COVID-19. Alcohol fuels this rise in violence as victims are trapped with their abusers during the pandemic.

Clearly, alcohol harm is exerting a heavy strain on the healthcare system.

A new, groundbreaking research report synthesized all available evidence on alcohol’s lethal interaction with the coronavirus pandemic. It details how alcohol harm impedes effective responses to the pandemic by healthcare systems pushed to the brink. 

Alcohol contributes to over 400 varieties of illness and injury. On average, alcohol contributes to 20% of injuries and 11.5% of all non-injury emergency department presentations.

Clearly, alcohol harm is placing a considerable strain on scarce and overextended healthcare resources. This alcohol burden should be another key consideration in the response to the pandemic,” said Kristina Sperkova, International President of Movendi International.

But not all countries have taken decisive action with the help of evidence-based alcohol policy solutions to swiftly reduce the alcohol burden during the pandemic.

Kristina Sperkova, International President, Movendi International

The researchers show that declaring alcohol ‘essential’ – as some jurisdictions have done – has fueled greater numbers of other alcohol-related illnesses and injuries. 

But countries that implemented evidence-based alcohol policy measures saw specific reductions in emergency room and hospital admissions over and above the effects of lockdowns.

This sows that solutions are available – in Victoria, Australia, as in North America, Europe or other parts of the world.

Solutions are available for governments to reduce the alcohol burden and mitigate the pandemic through evidence-based alcohol policy measures. The researchers make the following recommendations:

  • Maintain and improve alcohol policy measures;
  • Limit alcohol availability and affordability and make use of evidence-based alcohol pricing policies;
  • Ensure effective public health messaging on alcohol and COVID-19 from health authorities;
  • Make clinical and treatment provisions for people experiencing all types of alcohol-related problems; and
  • Increase access to mental health services, including online services. 

Source Website: ABC News