ROCKLAND, Maine ― About a dozen staff members in a Rockland-based school district will soon receive training on how to administer a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Regional School Unit 13 board members voted unanimously Thursday night to adopt an amendment to its medication policy that will allow trained school staff to administer naloxone ― commonly known by the brand name Narcan ― on school grounds when someone is experiencing a suspected overdose.
There have not been any overdoses on school grounds to date, and school officials don’t anticipate that they will need to administer the life-saving drug to students. But with schools serving as a community hub for sporting events, performances and other public functions, officials say it’s a prudent policy to adopt as overdose deaths continue to rise annually in Maine.
“If we can save one life, I think all the time and effort that we put into it will be worth it,” RSU 13 Superintendent John McDonald said. “It’s just basically being ready.”
The passage of the RSU 13 policy follows new legislation that took effect in October, which established guidelines for the administration of naloxone in Maine’s public and private schools. A handful of Maine school districts, including Portland’s public schools, had naloxone policies prior to the legislation, according to Maine Department of Education School Nurse Consultant Emily Poland.
Schools wanted more guidance from the state on how to best move forward with these types of policies.
“This was one [policy area] that people were requesting some concrete answers and concrete guidance on,” Poland said. “The legislation really takes something that was gray and makes it black and white.”
The legislation is a piece of Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to make naloxone widely available in an attempt to save people from dying from opioid overdoses, according to Gordon Smith, director of opioid response for the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future.
Overdose deaths have steadily climbed in Maine in recent years, following a similar trend nationally. An estimated 630 people died in Maine from drug overdoses last year, Smith said, surpassing the overdose deaths that occurred in 2020. The 2021 estimate is based on suspected overdoses at this point since the state is still waiting on final toxicology reports, according to Smith.
“[The legislation] is really a part of our effort to saturate our communities with this medication in reaction to the fact that lots of people are still using illicit drugs and more and more people are overdosing,” Smith said.
Overdoses in Maine schools are rare. Poland only knew of two instances in which naloxone was administered to students. Two Mainers who died from overdoses in 2020 were under the age of 18, according to state data, though no deaths were reported for this age group in 2019.
While rare, it can’t be ruled out that teenage Mainers may experience an opioid overdose, Smith said, especially as it is becoming more prevalent for drugs to be laced with fentanyl.
“It’s not only not beyond the realm of possibility, it’s almost a virtual certainty,” Smith said. “Unfortunately adolescents are experimenting with drugs at younger and younger ages and the products are so lethal.”
More broadly, Smith and Poland say that these types of school-based naloxone policies are important because of how frequently schools are visited by the general public, increasing the chances that someone could experience an overdose on school grounds.
In Rockland, McDonald and RSU 13 Board Chair Loren Andrews said this was a driving force behind their new policy.
“When you think of communities, schools are like the basis and the center of a community. A lot of things go on there where people attend,” Andrews said. “I don’t expect some rush, some huge number that we’re going to have to do this for. But it could happen. Literally, the word could. And I just think it’s great for us to be prepared to help someone if we need to.”
RSU 13 will be partnering with Pen Bay Medical Center to receive training and supply of naloxone in a nasal spray form. About 12 staff members from across the district will be trained initially, including principals, nurses, the athletic director, the assistant superintendent and McDonald.
Through the partnership, RSU 13 staff will begin training sessions next week, according to Dr. Kendra Emery, a family physician with Pen Bay Medical Center. Emery said the sessions include education on the signs and symptoms of an opioid overdose as well as training on how to administer the drug.
“It is such a simple procedure and simple thing that can save a person’s life,” Emery said.
It is not clear how many other Maine school districts are considering adopting similar policies following the new legislation. Given the added stress the COVID-19 pandemic has put on school nursing staff across the state, Poland said she anticipates more districts may consider naloxone policies as they have the bandwidth to do so.
“I think that we will see more schools adopting this, especially as we have a chance to breathe maybe,” Poland said. “As the work related to the COVID response lessens, which it hasn’t yet, we may be able to do more trainings, make sure all school nurses are aware of it and school administrators are aware of the resources and the law that passed, but all of that has been second chair to the COVID response.”