WINDSOR, ONT. -- The Windsor Team Care Centre’s substance abuse services are being forced online by COVID-19 – but the move may be a blessing in disguise.

A new virtual substance abuse program, part of the One Team Recovery (OTR) initiative, will have its first session on Tuesday, through the online video call platform Go To Meeting. The service will allow up to 25 people to join the group session.

“They’re really wanting the help,” says Beth Lalonde, an addiction counsellor with the program. “No one wakes up and says, ‘Hey guess what I want to be today? I want to be having a problem with this.’”

The OTR is a five-week harm reduction program launched in October backed by a $40,880 grant from the Windsor-Essex Community Foundation and Green Shield Canada.

Lalonde says counselling services have continued during the pandemic through one-on-one video calls and phone conversations, but the options are not good substitutes for in-person and group consultations.

That led to the launch of the new virtual platform.

“To reach the masses and to provide a group setting, we just found that this program could offer those extra services and extra supports this way and connect other people, so they don’t feel as alone,” says Lalonde.

That loneliness may be creating further problems for those struggling with substance abuse.

Lalonde says while opioid and crystal meth abuse is widespread in Windsor, half of her clients are struggling with alcohol.

“Because of that isolation component with COVID, we’re seeing that clients are sometimes escalating their drinking or substance use because no one is there to support them,” says Lalonde.

Yet, at the same time, Lalonde has seen a drastic dip in the number of physician referrals.

Addiction counsellors at the centre usually have 25 clients at any one time.

The OTR program has allowed self-referrals since March as a result of the COVID-induced dip.

Derek Roberts, another addiction counsellor with the team, hopes the virtual platform will allow for more personal discussions with clients at a time when in-person visits are restricted or ill-advised.

“Ideally we would like to provide the service in-person but, with what’s going on, we’re not able to do that so we’ve got to go on to the next best thing,” says Roberts.

There are 10 people registered for the first virtual program cycle.

Roberts and Lalonde will be connecting with the group on Friday to ensure a smooth launch next week.

The program is already showing promise, according to Roberts, who sees the platform as more convenient for clients – helping to cut down on skipped meetings – and more efficient for the counsellors to potentially see more referrals.

Roberts expects the program could become a mainstay even as group programs return, as pandemic restrictions are lifted, including those that bring families impacted by addiction together.

“We know that statistics show for everyone individual’s addiction, that it directly affects five additional people,” says Roberts. “Which are their loved ones and friends.”

Roberts adds the OTR program has no current wait list. Those seeking help can call 519-250-5524.