South Portland Police Lt. Todd Bernard, left, PAARI Executive Director Allie Hunter and Recovery Corps member Sarah Thorne hold a pop-up event this summer at the Day’s Inn in South Portland. Contributed / Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative

Since January, there have been 35 reported drug overdoses in South Portland, nine of them fatal.

“February was one of our highest months for overdoses,” said Sarah Thorne of the National Recovery Corps Program who is working with the South Portland Police Department. “There are some months where I see multiple overdoses, other months there might be one. But at this point, one is too many.”

At the PAARI Pop-Up event on July 15, Naloxone and fentanyl test strips were handed out to the public at the PAARI Pop. Contributed / PAARI

Thorne, a member of the Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative National Recovery Corps Program, has been embedded with South Portland since October 2020. She has been working with the department on overdose prevention and creating non-arrest pathways for those needing treatment for substance misuse.

The South Portland Police Department recently extended its partnership with Thorne and the initiative to continue the program for another year. Founded in 2015, the initiative has provided assistance to over 600 police departments in 35 states.

“Sarah has been helping us in areas where we’ve been lacking,” said Lt. Todd Bernard, who has been with the department for 31 years. “We try to follow up on every overdose incident that we have. Sarah keeps track of that, and we reach out to every person after they have been released from the hospital to try to put them in touch with services that are available.”

Community education is a big part of Thorne’s role. She and the initiative hosted a pop-up event in July to provide information on how to recognize an overdose and what to do.

“We handed out fentanyl test strip kits and were also able to hand out naloxone,” said Thorne.

Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is a medicine that is able to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

Of the 35 overdoses in South Portland since January, naloxone saved 23 lives. Only three of the people with nonfatal overdoses in South Portland did not need to be given naloxone, according to Thorne’s records.

“There were 93,000 overdose deaths in the country last year,” Bernard said. “There are estimates that for every death, nine other people (have been saved) with Narcan.

“That would be almost 1 million overdose deaths without Narcan.”

Maine recorded a record 502 fatal overdoses in 2020, according to the University of Maine and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and preliminary numbers in 2021 indicate that number is on the rise. Nationwide, overdose deaths have rapidly increased in the past decade. In 2010, there were over 38,000 overdose deaths, and in 2019, that number nearly doubled to over 70,000, according to drugabuse.gov.

The big jump in overdose deaths in 2020 is largely attributed to the pandemic.

“Some of the support services would have been available if not for the pandemic,” said Bernard.

“Isolation,” stated Thorne. People seeking recovery “aren’t having that community … They’re having to take extra steps to get the help they need and that’s a barrier for some folks.”

Bernard agreed, saying that people with substance use disorders have told South Portland police that there is a  lack of resources available to them as a result of the pandemic.

Thorne said that pop-up events, like the one in July, are a great way to connect with the community and give these potentially life-saving, harm-reduction tools to the public. The department intends to hold more of the events in the future.

“Unfortunately, people are going to continue to use,” said Thorne. “But putting those harm-reduction tools in the hands of, not just those who are suffering, but also their friends and family members, can help.”

Between PAARI providing harm-reducing tools to the public and Thorne’s tracking of these overdoses and following up on those involved, the partnership has made a positive impact on the community. Bernard said. He also sees the potential to increase that impact.

“Our goal is to reduce the amount of people that we see overdose,” said Bernard. “It’s a lofty goal, but I think that’s what everyone in our community wants.”

Thorne said her work in South Portland has been eye-opening for her.

“This has given me a really great understanding of just how well South Portland PD has done in addressing this issue,” said Thorne. “Sometimes we as civilians don’t think about the impact officers can have on folks every day.”

“It’s just a great way to increase our presence out in the community, especially for those who need help,” said Bernard. “It shows we’re not just there for enforcement, but that we are also helping people in their journey to get clean.”

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