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At Summit, Maine Officials Say They're Redoubling Efforts To Control Drug Overdoses

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Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah speaks at at a virtual summit July 15 on Maine's response to the opioid crisis.

The threat of COVID-19 may have ebbed in Maine over the last few months. But there’s another public health problem that only grew worse during the pandemic: opioids.

Both Maine and the nation saw a record-breaking number of drug overdose deaths in 2020: 93-thousand people in the US died from a drug overdose. And opioids were the focus of a virtual, daylong summit convened by Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday.

Just over 500 people lost their lives to drugs in Maine last year. That was up 33% from the prior year, and mirrored a similar uptick across the whole country that was just announced by the federal government earlier this week.

"We did have just an awful 2020," said State Attorney General Aaron Frey.

Experts say that fentanyl, a cheap and deadly synthetic opioid, is continuing to drive the surge. The COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse by disrupting lives and programs, and forcing people to use dangerous drugs alone.

"83% of those fatal overdoses were a result of non-pharmaceutical opioids, particularly fentanyl," Frey said.

During Thursday’s virtual summit, state and federal officials pledged to redouble their efforts to control the epidemic.

The troubling statistics come even as Maine has expanded its response efforts to the opioid crisis. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah pointed to several harm reduction strategies in the state, such as a proliferation of syringe exchange programs over the last three years -which have more than doubled from seven to 15 - and a new law that decriminalizes the possession of needles and strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl in drugs.

"It's akin to giving people a flashlight in the dark, allowing them to see what's in the substances that they use," Shah said.

Mills recently signed several bills into law to address overdose deaths. One establishes an Accidental Drug Overdose Death Review Panel to help develop strategies to prevent future fatalities. The state has also increased the availability of Medication Assisted Treatment to people who are incarcerated. It's trained more than 500 recovery coaches, and more than 130 are actively working with people recovering from addiction. But Gov. Janet Mills says the state still has a long way to go.

"The increase in overdose deaths during the coronavirus pandemic is concrete evidence that we have to do more," Mills said. "We cannot rest until we deliver on our promise to attack this deadly and destructive disease and root it out."

Shah said that social isolation was a necessary strategy to battling the coronavirus, but that it was uniquely taxing for people struggling with substance use disorder.

Still, he thinks the pandemic may offer some lessons for tackling the opioid problem.

"Substance use differs from COVID in many ways, in so far as that it’s not a virus, there‘s no lab test and there is no vaccine," he said. "But what I think is important is that the tools that Maine used to come together in our response to COVID are just as instrumental for epidemics like substance use, as they are with infectious diseases like COVID."

The Mills Administration has also updated its opioid response plan. Among the top priorities: better educating parents and teachers about prevention strategies, working with employers to create recovery-friendly work places, prosecuting drug traffickers, and identifying doctors who over-prescribe opioids.

Another priority is expanding Medication Assisted Treatment, and a recent federal rule change could open a new potential avenue for that expansion in Maine. Regina LaBelle, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says it allows the use of mobile methadone vans.

"Our goal here is to improve access to this critical medication for opioid use disorder, including in rural areas, to reach people in need wherever they may live," LaBelle said.

LaBelle acknowledged that with each forward step to prevent opioid use and deaths, new challenges emerge. She says the response to a chronic disease like substance use disorder requires a sustained, diligent effort.

Thursday's summit also featured break out sessions on subjects including jobs for people in recovery and culturally sensitive treatment programs.

State officials say they expect next year's opioid response summit will be held in person.