Editorial: Where do we go from here? 

Drug deaths have been trending upward in Maine since 2014. Drug deaths had peaked – or so we thought – in 2018 and then began to fall in 2019. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic that ushered in a perfect storm for those using or already addicted to drugs: isolation, feelings of despair, and, for many, a loss of employment and stability. And, we know now, many people turned to drugs as a way to cope with these challenges and the numbers have continued to climb.  

In 2020, 504 people died of a drug overdose, making it the deadliest year on record for such deaths. 

Death from drug overdose tells a story, but not the entire story. In September, the most recent month for which statistics are available, the Margaret Chase Smith Policy center reported 1,020 fatal and nonfatal overdoses, including 58 (6 percent) confirmed and suspected fatal overdoses and 962 (94 percent) nonfatal overdoses. There were also 450 (44 percent) emergency department visits; 234 (23 percent) EMS patients who were not transported to the emergency room; and 276 (27 percent) reversals reported by community members to the Maine Naloxone Distribution Initiative. That’s not to mention the additional unknown number of nonfatal overdoses for which 911 was not called and for which no reversal report was provided. 

From January to September of this year, there have been a total of 6,891 fatal and nonfatal overdoses, including 454 (7 percent) fatal overdoses; 3,261 (47 percent) nonfatal emergency department visits; 1,658 (24 percent) nonfatal EMS responses not transported to the emergency department; 1,479 (21 percent) reported community reversals; and an estimated 39 (less than 1 percent) law enforcement reversals in cases that did not include EMS. 

The greatest number of overdoses so far this year – 57 – was recorded in September. All indications are that 2021 will break another record.  

For the last two years, the Mills administration has targeted the epidemic with a series of executive orders and evidence-based strategies aimed at curbing the numbers. Those efforts included training 534 recovery coaches who are actively working with individuals in the community, creating recovery programs and allowing access to Medication Assisted Treatment to jails across the state, increasing the number of recovery residents from 101 to 120 and increasing access to Maine’s Adult Drug Use Courts for those with substance use disorders.  

The goal, says the Mills administration, is to “reduce the negative health and economic impacts of opioid and other substance use disorders on individuals, families, and communities in Maine and, in so doing, give hope to all persons with a substance use disorder that recovery is not just possible, but probable.” 

Last month Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would receive a grant of $929,502 to support Maine people with mental health or substance use disorders. 

The funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will support development of a new Medicaid program providing community-based, mobile crisis interventions for Medicaid beneficiaries. The funds were allocated through the American Rescue Plan. 

“This new funding will allow us to enhance and expand mobile crisis services across Maine, strengthen the behavioral health system overall, and save lives by better helping people when and where they need it most – earlier and in their own communities,” said Gov. Janet Mills. 

Funds such as these are critical to organizations like the Acadia Family Center in Southwest Harbor, which recently announced it would suspend its clinical services because of a lack of clinical providers and the need for a new business model that will lead to more financial security. Hopefully money will make its way to the nonprofit, which has been providing services in the community for the last four decades. 

The work done so far has likely been helpful overall, but as drug use and deaths continue to rise, we have to wonder what more can be done.  

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