A nurse dispenses methadone pills at CAP Quality Care in Westbrook on Friday. Gov. Paul LePage plans to eliminate state funding for methadone treatment of drug addiction.

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Maine is relaxing key rules for needle exchanges and methadone clinics so people with substance use disorder can continue receiving medication and other services while coming into contact with others less often to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus.

An executive order from Gov. Janet Mills has temporarily eliminated the requirement that syringe exchange programs collect one used syringe for every clean syringe they hand out. The order also allows them to more easily change the hours and locations of mobile distribution sites.

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The order applies only to syringe exchanges that are already authorized by the state. The idea is that, without having to frequently return to the exchanges to collect clean syringes and drop off contaminated ones, people who use the programs can stay away from the distribution sites for longer stretches.

The Mills administration has also allowed methadone clinics more flexibility to give patients 14- or 28-day supplies of the anti-addiction medication. Methadone clinic patients often visit clinics daily for medication doses, putting them in contact with other patients and clinic staff. Now, when clinic staff determine that patients are safe and stable enough in their lives, they can take home 14- or 28-day supplies of the medication.

Clinics’ pharmacists can also oversee the dispensing of the medication remotely under emergency rules enacted by the Maine Board of Pharmacy.

“While physical distancing is our best tool to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we also have to recognize its impacts on Maine people, like those with Substance Use Disorder, many of whom rely on in-person support for treatment and recovery,” Mills said in a statement.

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services is stepping up the distribution of naloxone, a medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, to opioid treatment programs so patients can have take-home doses due to the potential for overdose at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department expects to purchase 20,000 naloxone doses this month and distribute them over the course of the year. The programs that hand out naloxone are required to contact patients who received take-home doses at least every week.

The American Medical Association on Friday highlighted Mills’ executive order on syringe exchanges and urged other states to adopt it.

“Sterile needle and syringe exchange is a proven harm reduction strategy,” the association’s president, Dr. Patrice Harris, said in a statement.

Watch: How does COVID-19 spread?

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