Peer advocates are uniquely positioned to help alleviate the burden by focusing on clients coming into the emergency room for Substance use and behavioral health related illness during the COVID pandemic. New York has been identified as an epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic with 67,131 cases. Over 3,000 of those cases are on Staten Island. The numbers are expected to rise as we reach the “peak” of individuals infected in the coming weeks. Emergency room departments and healthcare professionals are expected to be overwhelmed with an increase of COVID-19 positive patients. Managing and outreaching to clients is essential to reduce ER pressures.

The implications of social distancing are contributing to higher demand for mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) services, according to PPS healthcare sources. Peer advocates continue to engage patients amidst the pandemic unless the patient tests positive for COVID-19. Under such circumstances, the appropriate resources are provided to the medical team.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “the role of the peer support worker has been defined as one who offers help, based on the shared understanding, respect, and mutual empowerment between people in similar situations. Peer support has been described as a system of giving and receiving help based on key principles that include shared responsibility and mutual agreement of what is helpful.”

Since the beginning of 2020, the peers at Richmond University Medical Center on Staten Island have engaged a total 568 patients in the emergency room with the breakdown of engagements as follows; 201 in January, 182 in February, and 185 in March. Peers also provide Narcan training and from January 2020 – March 31st a total of 346 kits have been distributed. In March, a total of 115 kits and training took place. Four peer advocates cover the ED seven days a week. They help create an environment of hope and wellness in an acute care setting such as the ED and can immediately engage patients using recovery principles. In addition, they are equipped to help patients navigate the healthcare system by acting as a bridge and connecting them to the appropriate level of care based on their needs. Patients are followed by the peer advocates for a total of four weeks.

It is generally accepted that once we overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a rise in SUD cases or relapse due to the isolation. This may trigger an increase to ED visits by that population, in which case, the peer advocate team would be crucial in helping provide the appropriate support.