Maine is battling a persistent opioid crisis by trying to find and provide treatment and services to those most in danger – typically people who have just survived an overdose.

Finding new ways to stem the crisis was one of the themes at Maine’s third Opioid Response Summit on Thursday.

In addressing the summit, which was held virtually for most participants, Gov. Janet Mills said that the isolation and resulting mental health challenges that occurred when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of society last year contributed to an increase in substance use.

“The rise in overdose deaths during the coronavirus pandemic is concrete evidence we have to do more,” Mills said. “There is no simple solution to ending the opioid epidemic.”

Maine has expanded substance use disorder services and launched new programs during the pandemic.

Gordon Smith, Maine’s opioid response director, said in an interview Thursday that the widespread availability of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversing drug – is saving thousands of lives. The state delivered about 800 doses of naloxone statewide in July 2019, while in recent months the monthly distribution typically has topped 5,000. Naloxone can be easily found in drugstores and public safety departments, and syringe exchange sites and hospitals also have supplies on hand.

Gordon Smith, the state’s director of opioid response. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Although drug overdose deaths increased by 33 percent in Maine in 2020, from 380 in 2019 to 504 last year, Smith said the wave of overdose deaths would have been worse if not for the accessibility of naloxone.

“For every person we lose, 10 are saved,” Smith said. “Things would be much worse if we didn’t have naloxone.”

A similar one-third increase in overdose deaths has occurred nationally, with more than 90,000 fatalities last year, according to federal statistics.

Maine has recently begun tracking non-fatal overdoses. Of the 3,222 overdoses from January through May 2021, 247 were fatal. Naloxone is routinely used by first responders at the scene of overdoses, and there were 625 known cases of the antidote being used by a community member to revive someone who had overdosed from January through May.

Smith said a new initiative, called OPTIONS, places a liaison in every Maine county who reaches out to people who survived an overdose. The $1 million program is funded mostly by federal grants.

“The people most at risk of dying from a drug overdose are those who just survived an overdose,” Smith said. “The liaison connects with people who survived and attempts to get them into harm reduction programs (such as syringe exchanges) and tries to hopefully get them into treatment.”

Smith said the OPTIONS program started in December and now operates in all 16 counties, with a goal of expanding further this year.

Another recently launched program, the Maine MOM initiative, connects pregnant women and new parents, along with their infants, to substance use disorder treatment. The program, funded with a five-year, $5.3 million federal grant, brings the program to 17 health care locations in Maine.

Maine MOM offers, among other supportive services, medication-assisted treatment to pregnant women. About 7 percent of all births in Maine involve an infant who was exposed to substances during pregnancy.

Dr. Alane O’Connor, clinical lead for the Maine Maternal Opioid Misuse Initiative, said in a presentation at the summit that medication-assisted treatment using Suboxone or methadone remains the best treatment for those with opioid use disorder during pregnancy, despite the stigma that may be attached. O’Connor said one reason MAT is best is because the risk of relapse is high for those trying to quit “cold turkey” during pregnancy.

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