CUMBERLAND COUNTY — For most Mainers, social isolation has become an unwelcome consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, but for those trying to recover from opioid addictions, it can be deadly. Local substance abuse counselors and advocates say the pandemic is making an already challenging struggle that much harder, and is even contributing to an increase of deaths by overdose.

Since the pandemic and the loss of programs over the past five years, the opioid crisis has been getting worse in terms of overdoses in an already stressed system, local experts agree, and more exposure and resources for those who have nowhere to turn are needed.

Justin O’Bremski is two years sober, but he remembers the horrors of active addiction well. He said he doesn’t want to think about how much worse recovery would be during a pandemic.

Justin O’Bremski, in “his first real apartment on his own.” Two years clean from an opioid addiction, he now helps others at the Portland Recovery Community Center. His addiction began with pain killers in high school, before moving into heroin use. He wants to be someone people can go to, he said, and wants his face out there. Courtesy photo

It scares the living s— out of me to think what it’d be like if I was out there going through this now with what is going on,” O’Bremski said. 

O’Bremski, who now works with the Portland Recovery Community Center, said he has seen “more deaths than in the last 2½ years.” Along with local and state officials, he is calling for more cost-free resources to alleviate wait times for crucial recovery programs.

I know people I’ve gone sober with who relapsed and are out there now; seeing them is terrible,” he said.

Connection and support during the pandemic are lacking, said Portland Police mental health coordinator Jo Freedman.

“They aren’t getting that connection or support, and it relates to mental illness, that being isolated and not having those connections can put someone in jeopardy,” Freedman said. “It was difficult for us. We would patrol places like Preble Street and kind of check up on the people we knew who were needing help. COVID put a dent in that.”

State and local law enforcement agencies and emergency medical services had difficulty providing detailed data to document the crisis, citing outdated reporting software used locally, but managed at the state and federal level.

But some figures point to a growing problem:

  • The Maine Attorney General’s latest Drug Death Report released July 17 shows 127 deaths were caused by drugs in the first quarter of 2020, a 23% increase over the fourth quarter of 2019. Of the deaths, 82% were caused by at least one opioid, and 80% included two or more drugs.
  • Data from Maine Emergency Medical Services, a division of the State Department of Public Safety, shows that in 2020, with data from January through August, the division indicated 1,559 EMS cases related to opioids statewide, up from 1,449 for the same time period in 2019, and 1,236 in 2018.
  • The Portland Fire Department reported a total of 580 responses to drug overdoses so far in 2020 as of August. In 2019, the department responded to a total of 1,164 overdoses, compared to 941 in 2018, 1,048 in 2017 and 874 in 2016.

Jaime Higgins is a crime analyst for the Scarborough Police Department and also serves as the coordinator for Operation Hope, a program the department offers for people whose bodies have recovered from having been exposed to drugs — or “detoxed,” as law enforcement and the medical community refer to it — but fear the addiction is still too strong to resist if they don’t get help. Higgins said she’s concerned because there is less participation in the program since the pandemic began.

“I would expect it to be busier,” she said.

The program has helped 405 people since October 2015. In January 2020 the program helped place six patients at recovery centers, which Higgins said is a typical monthly number.

But Operation Hope closed temporarily in March, and since it reopened June 16, only three people have been placed, Higgins said.

Higgins agreed that for patients needing medical help and counseling, a lack of resources is part of the problem. Most recovery centers, including those Higgins works with through Operation Hope, don’t allow patients who still might have drugs in their systems or may still be physically recovering from the damage, as those centers are not equipped to handle a potential medical emergency.

There are very few centers that can handle the detox process, Higgins said, especially for patients who don’t have health insurance. Milestone, she said, was the only one she worked with, and patients without insurance will either need to pay cash or have established health coverage through MaineCare.

Even then, the pandemic is taking its toll regarding timing. Higgins said she knew of at least two facilities she worked with — Crossroads, a recovery center for women in Scarborough, and Portland Recovery Community Center — that closed to in-person visits when the pandemic first broke out, and while they have reopened, a surge of patients looking for help could force centers to establish a waiting list.

“That’s a small window of opportunity to get that help,” she said.

“There is usually a three- to six-month wait list for some programs over in Bangor (at Wellspring) that are free (and do not require insurance),” said Danielle Rideout, the recovery liaison for the Westbrook Police Department. “I have a man on the wait list who’s been on there for three months. He calls every week to check in and stay on that list.”

Rideout, along with Portland Police’s substance use disorder liaison Oliver Bradeen, work directly with people going through addiction to connect them to available resources, often responding directly to the scene of an overdose.

Increasingly, they said, they are taking people to programs farther away to avoid wait times locally.

“When I started (in 2016) it was what I called a resource desert,” Bradeen said. “It just seemed that over the years resources for people were decimated (by financial troubles), we lost so many options and nothing really sprang up in their place. For a while, the only resource for people with no insurance or money in the city was me.”

Resources diminishing at the same time is adding to the spikes. Within the past six years, the detox center at Mercy Hospital had closed, which, according to Bradeen and Rideout, was a crucial option that was able to serve thousands despite their financial status.

“They could not afford to stay open, partially due to the opioid crisis gaining traction, and that was a huge resource we lost,” Bradeen said. “Over time we had lost programs like the Serenity House, which was a residential program ran by the York County Shelter Program.”

Leslie Rawlings, chief marketing and development officer at Crossroads, said she has noticed an increase in need.

“Definitely our calls are up,” she said.

The center offers three resident treatment programs for women, with a total of 34 beds. The center also does counseling on an outpatient basis, but it’s done through video chat now instead of in person, Rawlings said. One good thing, she said, is that patients who can’t drive can get help, leading the center to establish a waiting list for the first time in more than a year.

“They don’t have to worry about transportation for our services,” she said.

That said, Rawlings said in-person counseling works better for most patients. It’s easier for the counselor to see some forms of body language while sitting directly in front of a patient, as opposed to simply viewing a patient on a video feed.

“When a client is reporting something, the clinician has a chance to address something they’re seeing in body language right away,” she said.

O’Bremski said to help build community resources and get people talking about the issue, more work needs to be done in fighting the stigma of drug addiction first.

“It’s not as simple as picking drugs up or putting them down; it’s not a moral issue,” O’Bemski said. “I suffer from a disease that is in my mind that tells me I don’t want to feel like this. I have seven felonies. You look at my papers, Google my name, I look terrible. Most of us do. We are not bad people, we are sick, we have a disease. The stigma, it’s where a lot of (isolation) comes from.”

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