As drug deaths continue to mount across Maine during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangor could soon launch a pilot program that would rush a variety of resources to people who have just overdosed, with the ultimate goal of trying to get them into treatment.
The program, which would be funded over four years by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, will soon go to the Bangor City Council for approval.
If it’s approved, the city’s public health office would hire a coordinator to bring together a small team of people that would work to identify people who have recently been treated for a drug overdose. That team would then reach out to those people within 72 hours of the overdose to offer whatever support they need, according to Bangor Public Health Director Patty Hamilton.
Those supports would be tailored to each person, including everything from harm reduction materials such as clean needles and overdose-reversing medication to education about recovery and connection with housing, health care and resources, Hamilton said.
The four-person team would be modeled off of a similar one in the 46,000-person city of Huntington, West Virginia, which has seen positive outcomes since forming late in 2017 in response to the opioid epidemic.
After that region faced its own crisis of drug overdoses, the quick-response team has been able to steer almost a third of the 720 individuals it approached into treatment, according to the Herald-Dispatch newspaper. The county that includes Huntington saw its fatal overdose rate fall by a quarter from 2017 to 2018, and nonfatal overdoses fall by half from 2017 to 2019, according to federal data.
While first responders and health care providers in Greater Bangor have been able to use naloxone to revive many people who overdose on opioids, Hamilton is not aware of any similar programs in the region that have tried to offer a direct bridge between the treatment of a drug overdose and the additional resources needed for a person to be safe and enter recovery.
From left: Shelly Yankowsky is reflected in her son’s gravestone in Glenburn after he died in August 2017 of a drug overdose; People used chalk to write messages for the 2019 International Overdose Awareness Day on Bangor’s Pickering Square. Credit: Gabor Degre & Charles Eichacker | BDN
The program in West Virginia has shown that while people who have just been revived from an overdose are not immediately receptive to those resources, they might be in the days shortly afterward, Hamilton said. Bangor would receive $600,000 over four years to start the program, try it out for two years and then help establish similar teams in two or three other rural communities.
“We decided it was a good fit for our community,” Hamilton said.
The new approach comes as drug overdose deaths have picked up in Maine during the COVID-19 pandemic, with such deaths in the second quarter of this year up 23 percent from the last quarter of 2019. Bangor and Penobscot County also saw their fatal overdose numbers climb during the first part of this year, according to state data.
Public health officials have linked that uptick to the increased isolation, economic hardship and inaccessibility of health care during the coronavirus pandemic. While the pandemic will create additional challenges for launching the overdose response team, Hamilton said that they are surmountable and that the hardships of the pandemic have made it more important than ever to connect with people who are struggling.
“We think it’s timely,” she said. “We think it will be a little challenging in the time of COVID, you know, reaching out to people. But at that same time, that seems like what we have to do.”