Shelly Yankowsky stands at her son Adam's gravestone in Glenburn in April 2018. Shelly and David Yankowsky lost both their sons to opioid overdoses, one in 2017 and one in 2018. The couple on Thursday received an award for their addiction-related advocacy from Gov. Janet Mills. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

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A week after the state announced that drug-related deaths are on the rise this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills convened her second Opioid Response Summit on Thursday, hosting a number of speakers and sessions virtually.

A report released last week by the Maine attorney general’s office estimated that 259 people died in the first half of 2020 due to drugs, primarily non-prescription opioids and fentanyl, up from 176 in the first half of 2019. That’s a 47 percent increase that puts Maine on pace to exceed its 2019 total of 380 overdose deaths. Overdose deaths have been on the rise nationally as the pandemic has led to social isolation, economic hardship and a reluctance to seek medical attention.

Despite the rise in overdose deaths, progress has been made in other areas including the distribution of naloxone to police officers that has led to 1,500 overdose reversals in the past 18 months, the opening of more sober houses and community recovery centers in Maine, more medically assisted treatment availability in prisons and jails, better availability of Suboxone in hospital emergency rooms and more public information programs, Gordon Smith, Mills’ director of opioid response, said.

“We are fully aware that we need more recovery housing, recovery-friendly jobs, recovery centers and recovery coaches,” Mills said. “We will continue to fund substance use disorder treatment of all kinds — residential, outpatient, intensive outpatient, and detox.”

The governor also announced that the state will establish a rapid response team to respond to local spikes in overdoses using mapping data, a federally funded initiative that allows more than 50 law enforcement agencies to enter real-time data at the time of an overdose in a way that protects individuals’ privacy rights.

In addition, Mills said, the Maine Department of Education is developing a prevention curriculum that could be used in all Maine schools. Thursday’s presentation included a program implemented at Windham Middle School called “Taking Back Maine’s Future: Ending the Opioid Crisis.”

Mills on Thursday also presented a special award to Shelly and David Yankowsky of Glenburn, whose two sons, Adam, 25, and Sean, 21, overdosed within a year of each other in 2017 and 2018.

“We felt that the best way to honor Adam and Sean is to help other families learn about substance use disorder so they don’t have to endure what our family has,” Shelly Yankowsky said in accepting the award.

The Yankowskys, both employed by the Maine State Police, have spoken to students, church groups, bankers and pharmacists to remind them that substance use disorder is about more than drug use. Their message is: “They were our kids, they weren’t the drugs.”

Shelly Yankowsky said that receiving the award felt like the culmination of the work she and her husband have been doing to fight the stigma of addiction.

“It also made us realize that we really are helping a lot of people and we need to keep doing it,” she said.