AUGUSTA — The growing number of drug overdose deaths has the city planning to further partner with the state to reach out to drug users, and their loved ones, to try to save lives.

And in some cases it may even mean helping people with substance use disorder use illegal drugs more safely, with harm reduction strategies.

City councilors met Thursday with the state’s Opioid Response Project Manager Rowland Robinson who offered the city the use of the state’s OPTIONS initiative media campaign materials on city social media, CTV-7 television station and other city outlets.

Maine saw 502 people die of overdoses in 2020, topping the previous high of 417 deaths in 2017.

The OPTIONS initiative — which stands for Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach, Naloxone and Safety — is a state program introduced last year by Gov. Janet Mills to assist those suffering from substance use disorders and curb fatal opioid drug overdoses.

The campaign’s message includes harm reduction strategies encouraging Mainers to consider obtaining naloxone, a medication that can revive someone having a drug overdose, and learn how to use it. It also aims to spread the word about a good Samaritan state law passed in 2019 that prevents a person who seeks medical assistance because of an overdose — either for themselves or another — from being arrested or prosecuted if the grounds for that are obtained as a result of the person’s seeking medical assistance or experiencing a drug-related overdose.

“You cannot recover (from substance use disorder) if you are dead,” Robinson told councilors, noting “502 deaths is unacceptable. So the state has really embraced harm reduction.”

One of the media campaign’s current messages features Glenburn couple David Yankowsky, a state police trooper,  and Shelly Yankowsky, a state police dispatcher, who lost both of their sons — Adam and Sean — to drug overdoses. The messages are designed to encourage people to not give up on their loved ones with substance use disorder.

“If you could help save somebody, why wouldn’t you,” Shelly Yankowsky says in the video. “Call 911. It’s a life. It’s your friend. It’s your cousin, it’s your brother. If you save that life, that one time, you don’t know if that’s the time when they’re actually going to go and get recovery and do amazing things. Adam and Sean didn’t have a chance to go on and get to recovery and do something with it. These people do. If this helps just one person, that’s more than enough for us.”

Councilors expressed interest in using the state-sponsored media campaign on city outlets.

“It’s a great campaign, I’m really excited to get this and share it,” said At-Large Councilor Heather Pouliot.

City Manager William Bridgeo said he could work with the leaders of a city task force focused on helping people fight substance use disorder to see if doing so would require any council action. But he said it appeared some of the material could simply be forwarded to CTV 7 and the city’s social media pages.

The state’s OPTIONS program also recently began providing funding to embed licensed behavioral health clinician Jasmine Daniels with Augusta Police. She will respond separately from public safety personnel to drug overdoses or other calls involving people with substance use disorder. Daniels will offer short-term counseling, assist them in finding help and work to decrease the likelihood they will die due to drug use. She is expected to be out in the community offering help and a path to treatment, without the threat of also being arrested.

The program, which Daniels said will later expand to offer her services elsewhere in Kennebec County, is funded for four years. The Kennebec County program is budgeted to receive $83,500 each of those years, meant to cover the liaison’s salary and benefits, and ongoing professional development costs, program supervision, the cost of Naloxone distribution and other operating expenses.

The city’s  Ad-Hoc Substance Use Task Force Advisory Committee was formed earlier this year in response to concerns about the growing opioid addiction problem, and related increase in overdose deaths seen nationwide, in Maine and Augusta.

The city’s task force’s members include city councilors Courtney Allen and Raegan LaRochelle, city staff including Augusta Police Chief Jared Mills, substance abuse counselors, treatment experts, members of the recovery community, and representatives of recovery houses and health organizations.

Councilors are expected to meet with Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey about Operation Hope, a program which helps people with substance use disorder enter treatment.

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