In this Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, file photo, a police officer holds a box of Narcan, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses, that the department officers carry in their patrol vehicles in Jackson Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania. Credit: Keith Srakocic / AP

A new team in Penobscot County aims to connect people with addiction help within 72 hours after they survive an overdose, combining efforts among emergency responders and addiction recovery experts.

The Penobscot County Overdose Response Team’s ultimate goal is “to meet people where they are at,” connecting them to organizations and services best suited for their needs, said Sara Yasner, coordinator of the team, which is run out of Bangor’s public health department and works with a number of Bangor-area organizations that help those in recovery from substance use disorder.

Maine has seen a record number of overdose deaths over the past year, a trend experts attribute to increased prevalence of the highly toxic fentanyl and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increasing prevalence of fentanyl had begun driving up the number of overdoses in Maine long before COVID-19, Yasner said. Yet the social isolation brought on by the pandemic has only increased risks, she said. It caused many to use substances alone, reducing the chance that friends or family members could call for help and that they could receive medical attention.

Research shows that there is a short outreach window after a non-fatal overdose in which those with substance use disorder are most likely to seek help, Yasner said.

“It’s a very difficult experience,” she said. “So someone is likely to want to have a conversation about potential support that might be of assistance.”

The team began in January but has recently started expanding its efforts, beginning close collaboration with the Bangor Police Department about two weeks ago, Yasner said. She expects to further coordinate its efforts with other law enforcement and emergency medical services agencies, including the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, in the future.

People are connected with the team when the Bangor police share the team’s information with individuals who have recently survived an overdose. If they are interested in receiving help, they reach out and a team member follows up and helps to connect them with resources such as treatment, peer recovery coaching, medical assistance and substance use disorder counseling.

The program is part of the OPTIONS initiative, a statewide effort from Gov. Janet Mills’ administration to reduce overdoses. The team received its funding from federal money Maine received through the federal Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.

A signature part of that program is an OPTIONS liaison who works alongside law enforcement and emergency responders to connect those with substance use disorders to resources. All 16 Maine counties have such a liaison, though not all have response teams. Penobscot County’s liaison, Adam Perkins, plays a key role on the team.

Though discussion around a coordinated effort to fight substance use disorder had been ongoing for years, Yasner said an important step for the program came from subcommittee meetings of the Community Health Leadership Board in 2018. The board, which includes the city of Bangor along with local health care and social service organizations, examined how recovery officials could work with local police and fire departments to reduce overdoses.

The subcommittee came across examples of drug abuse response teams that integrate recovery personnel including counselors and health care professionals with law enforcement and emergency responders. Such programs were first implemented in Ohio in 2014 and have since begun to spread across the country.

Noting that available resources, including medication-assisted treatment for those without health insurance, had rapidly grown in recent years, Yasner said she hopes that her team can assist as many people as possible as drug overdoses continue to occur across Penobscot County.

“The community has to rally around and deal with our stigma perspective on individuals who have used drugs,” Yasner said. “And notice the strengths that exist in someone who’s gone in the direction of recovery.”