Pennington County’s 24/7 program balances COVID-19 precautions with addiction help
RAPID CITY, S.D. — Like many law enforcement programs that must carry on through the pandemic, Pennington County’s 24/7 Sobriety Program is not immune to the twists and turns caused by the pandemic.
The program tests people for drug and alcohol use as an alternative to jail, but the pandemic constrained the number of people going through the program on a regular basis. Program Director Lucas Oyler says at the start of the pandemic, just over 700 people would come through their doors every month.
“In March, we asked our judges to reduce the number of people that were testing and asked that they only put people on 24/7 who absolutely need to be on it,” said Oyler.
The numbers quickly dropped to just under 230 participants every month. With safety precautions in place, they’ve slowly been allowing more people in as needed.
“In August, we started introducing more people into the program,” said Oyler. “We’re still about 30% lower than this time last year.”
Working in their favor is how quick the interactions are – up to a minute or two for breath tests and between five and ten minutes for urinary analysis. Even with quick interactions, Oyler says they make a difference, and when the option to switch to a contact-less breath test machine came about, he says it wasn’t the right fit for the area.
“We can see on people’s faces if they’re having a good day or a bad day,” said Oyler. “We can immediately know how to approach someone and I think that’s a lot more helpful to someone struggling with addiction than the concerns that would come from a short 30 second contact.”
Nate Shull finished a year of breath tests Thursday morning and says the face-to-face contact can help with accountability.
“You kind of make friends with the people here,” said Oyler.
But as the pandemic continues, the program looks for an equilibrium.
“So we have to kind of balance what we’re doing for COVID with what we’re doing for addiction problems,” said Oyler.
The program does have a few remote options like a take home test that can be taken upon request by the county.
“It’ll turn on and beep at them and also send them a text when its time to test,” said Oyler. “Then they have an hour.”
He says the program has about 100 of those. They also have SCRAM ankle bracelets and drug patches.
In 2019, the program served over 2,000 individuals.