The pandemic and the opioid crisis have dramatically increased the demand for recovery services at the BARN in Brewer. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The number of people receiving addiction recovery services from the Bangor Area Recovery Network has nearly doubled since 2019.

It’s another example of how the opioid epidemic has worsened during the pandemic, and especially in Penobscot County, with 2021 on track to be the deadliest year yet for drug overdoses in Maine. The Brewer recovery center is also seeing a spike in demand because a number of churches that hosted 12-step recovery meetings before the pandemic haven’t reopened for those meetings, and two new state programs that reach out to people struggling with addiction have resulted in more referrals.

“We used to have 50 or 60 people come through our doors and now we hold pretty steady at 80 to 100 per day,” said Executive Director Robert Fickett, who has been on the job less than a year.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the BARN, as the center on Central Street in Brewer is known, closed its doors as did other recovery centers around the state, offered meetings remotely and launched a phone check-in program. The center was able to reopen for in-person meetings with social distancing a few months later, in June, but Bangor-area churches, where most 12-step meetings were held, did not.

Many of those groups approached the BARN about meeting at the center. People slowly trickled in as a result, but it wasn’t until after February 2021 — after the center was closed in December and January — that Fickett started seeing a big increase in the number of people seeking help.

In February, the BARN had 398 unduplicated visitors — those who visited once — and 1,774 duplicated visitors who visited multiple times that month. By July, those figures had increased to 769 unduplicated visitors and 4,451 duplicated visitors, according to Fickett.

Different recovery groups, sometimes three at a time, were meeting in the building using the large common area, boardroom and kitchen, he said. Scheduling all who needed space was challenging.

“COVID changed how we all operate in a lot of ways,” Fickett said. “I think people really were impacted by being isolated for so long. They craved human interaction and connection. Folks looking to enter into and sustain their recovery have always flocked here to get that connection.”

BARN’s budget for 2022 will have to grow by more than $25,000 to keep pace with the demand for services, Fickett said.

“Finding additional revenue and funding to expand programming and increase program capacity will be necessary to continue providing quality services amidst both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic,” Fickett said.

Fortunately for the BARN, some donations have increased. Penobscot County, for example, upped its contribution to the organization for 2022 from $17,500 to $20,000 because of the increased number of people accessing services there.

Another factor driving increased demand for BARN’s services is the recent launch of state programs designed to reach out to those who have survived an opioid overdose.

The statewide OPTIONS (Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach Naloxone and Safety) program, has assigned liaisons to most Maine counties so they can reach out to those struggling with addiction. The liaisons equip them with the overdose reversal drug naloxone and potentially direct them to recovery services.

The Penobscot County Rapid Response Team is focused on connecting with individuals within 72 hours of a non-fatal overdose and offering support and referrals to services, such as those offered at the BARN.

“We’re starting to see the results of those outreach programs,” Fickett said. “We see people come in a few days after an overdose, sometimes homeless. Three weeks later, they are getting treatment, living in a sober home and working. That’s very rewarding.”

The number of people with substance use disorder seeking help from the BARN is not expected to abate any time soon. Maine recorded 58 overdose deaths in September, the highest number of the year. The previous high was in March, when 57 people died of drug overdoses.

As of Sept. 30, 455 people had died this year of drug overdoses in Maine, putting the state on pace to exceed 2020’s overdose death tally of 502, which was the deadliest year yet.

Nationally, more than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period that ended in April, up 28.5 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I’d like nothing more than to see our numbers at the BARN go up and overdose numbers go down, but it’s a hard fight out there,” Fickett said.