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'An Epidemic Within A Pandemic' - Maine Officials Discuss How To Respond To Opioid Crisis At Summit

Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Public
Mills and Shah at a news conference at the State House in March 2020. Both spoke at the virtual summit Thursday.

On the heels of a recent report that drug overdose deaths in Maine are on the rise, Gov. Janet Mills held a virtual opioid response summit Thursday.

It is the second time Mills has convened experts, advocates and those in recovery to help strengthen local and state response to the opioid crisis, this time taking place as the crisis has been exacerbated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including isolation and loneliness.

In the first three months of the year, 127 Mainers died from drug overdoses. That is a 23 percent increase compared to the last three months of 2019. And preliminary figures from the state show that the trend is continuing, with a projected total of 259 deaths for the first half of the year.

"We are here today because of a state of emergency within a state of emergency."

Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, was among the speakers at the virtual summit. He describes the opioid crisis as an epidemic nestled within a pandemic. Though the extent to which COVID-19 has affected substance use is not yet fully clear, Shah says it has created an additional stress: isolation.

"At a time in their lives when folks who are struggling may need a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold, the strictures of COVID-19 may have meant that neither was there," Shah says.

The pain of isolation and loneliness often drives people to seek relief in drugs or alcohol, says Dr. Vivek Murthy. He is the former surgeon general who issued a landmark report in 2016 that identified addiction as a chronic illness instead of a moral failing. Murthy also recently wrote a book about loneliness inspired, in part, by the stories he has heard from people with substance use disorder. While loneliness can lead to addiction, he says, social connection is an important part of the solution.

"There were very few, if any, people I met who were in recovery who didn't describe a person or a group that was pivotal to their recovery process," Murthy says.

That was the case for Ryan. He was among several people in recovery who spoke at the virtual summit. Ryan, who did not share his last name, says he started to drink when he was thirteen. He became addicted to opioids a few years later after a severe car accident. It took two decades, he says, to become sober.

"There have been many attempts at sobriety over the years, and I firmly believe that the difference this time around is my willingness to get involved within the recovery community and helping newcomers throughout the process."

Ryan says he meets regularly with peers. Peer support is among the strategies that Mills has focused on to tackle the opioid crisis. When she addressed the summit, Mills highlighted that the state has trained more than 250 peer recovery coaches. Looking forward, her plans include establishing an overdose fatality review panel and a rapid response team to address overdose spikes in communities. Mills says she will also focus on prevention, and she urges people to stay connected to others.

"Knock on your neighbor's door,” says Mills. “Open their fortress of solitude. Invite them back into society into the world. Let's not be strangers. "

Dr. Vivek Murthy says if he could rewrite his surgeon general report on addiction, he would put more emphasis on the role of social supports in preventing substance use disorders.