The Mills administration is planning to launch a statewide “rapid response team” later this year to help combat the opioid crisis.

The team would use near real-time data to look for spikes in nonfatal drug overdoses, and offer help to people with substance use disorder who may not otherwise have sought or received assistance.

A woman is taken to Maine Medical Center after Portland paramedics used naloxone to reverse an overdose in 2015. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The initiative, expected to cost about $3 million, comes on the heels of a drug overdose report that showed 127 Maine people had died from overdoses in the first quarter of 2020, a 23 percent increase over the last quarter of 2019. Maine is on track to surpass the record number of 417 overdose deaths in 2017, with a projected 259 deaths for the first six months of 2020 and possibly about 500 for the year.

Gov. Janet Mills highlighted the rapid response team in her speech before the state’s Opioid Response Summit on Thursday, which was held virtually and included former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

“We will continue to get at the root causes of the problem and focus a great deal more on prevention, preventing young people from starting down the road that leads so frequently to substance use disorders,” Mills said.

Gordon Smith, Maine’s director of opioid response, said one of the gaps in the state’s response to the opioid crisis is finding people with substance use disorder and getting them into recovery programs. Smith said many details on the rapid response team are being worked on, but he envisions a group that includes social workers who visit the homes of people who overdosed and try to connect them with treatment.

He noted that the state now has access to near real-time data on overdoses – including from ambulance runs, hospital emergency departments and federal data – that wasn’t available a year ago.

“Traditionally, there’s not been much communication between state officials and people who use drugs,” Smith said. “If we are serious about keeping people alive, there’s really no option. We have to do outreach to them.”

He said state officials are working on finding funding sources for the rapid response team, including federal money.

Other initiatives, Smith said, include raising awareness of Maine’s Good Samaritan Act, which prevents police from arresting people who call 911 when they see a drug overdose if they have also been using drugs. He said many are reluctant to call 911 because they fear being arrested, but doing so will save more lives.

Mills pointed to other efforts as well, such as prevention programs. The Maine Department of Education is working on a curriculum to help prevent drug use that will be launched in schools this fall.

“And we will continue to support Maine people in recovery,” Mills said. “We are fully aware that we need more recovery housing, recovery-friendly jobs, recovery centers and recovery coaches.”

Mills made the opioid crisis one of her top priorities upon assuming office in January 2019, but the long-lasting epidemic has not let up. Public health experts say the pandemic is a contributing  factor, but they also point to more drugs – such as cocaine and methamphetamine – being laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid that can cause overdoses in low doses.

Zoe Brokos, substance use prevention and harm reduction services program coordinator for the city of Portland, said the pandemic did cause some disruptions in the supply chain of drugs, so some with substance use disorder may have temporarily lost their access to the drugs.

“When they used again, perhaps their tolerance had changed and it was a greater likelihood for overdosing,” Brokos said.

Smith said the state is also going to continue to increase access to naloxone, the opioid antidote, and further expand syringe exchange programs. Fourteen syringe exchange programs now operate in Maine, and Smith said he hopes to have 20, including some mobile ones, by the end of 2020.

“The value of syringe exchanges is not just getting people safe needles and access to naloxone,” Smith said. “It’s an entry point, a contact point to where people can get help.”

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