In the span of four hours on Tuesday, five people in Presque Isle overdosed on heroin, and one died as a result. Police are now investigating the source of the drugs.
Kathryn Lewandowski, 34, of Presque Isle died from the apparent overdose Tuesday, Presque Isle Police Chief Matt Irwin said Wednesday.
Between 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 27, police and emergency medical service personnel from The Aroostook Medical Center’s Crown Ambulance responded to the overdoses.
Other people in the households reported the individuals were unresponsive after taking heroin, and one individual “was coming out of it” when the officers arrived at the home, according to Irwin.
All but one of the individuals were taken to The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle after the overdoses. It is not clear if the individuals were administered naloxone, the opiate-combatting drug known as Narcan that reverses the effects of heroin overdoses, Irwin said. Presque Isle police officers do not carry naloxone, but Crown Ambulance providers do.
No charges have been filed at this point, and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency is investigating. Irwin said it’s possible the heroin was either particularly strong or laced with the potent prescription narcotic fentanyl.
At this point, “there’s no way to know or speculate,” Irwin said. “We’re not eliminating the possibility that it was laced with some other drugs or that the level of purity was higher.”
News of the overdoses first came Tuesday evening, when Irwin wrote a short post on the Presque Isle Police Department’s Facebook page, warning families with loved ones suffering from opioid addiction of the possible “bad batch” and urging them to seek help.
While opioids and heroin have been an issue in Aroostook County, along with methamphetamine, Irwin said this was the first time that Presque Isle has seen such a volume of heroin overdoses with a short time span.
“We’ve had multiple overdoses in a day, but not like this. This was in such rapid order. In each of these cases, there were other people in the home that called us to report that there was a heroin overdose in progress. That’s different.”
Pete McCorison, director of behavioral health services at Aroostook Mental Health Center, said he thinks the overdoses could be something of a wake-up call for confronting opioid addiction in Aroostook County.
“I’m concerned that we don’t know the full outcome of what happened and what it’s going to be,” McCorison said of the overdoses and the possibility of especially lethal heroin being sold. “There’s a risk that it could clearly happen again.”
Although opioid addiction is perhaps not as visible as elsewhere, overdoses are probably a weekly occurrence in Aroostook County, McCorison said.
“Everybody in Aroostook County knows someone who is challenged with opioid use. You may not be aware of it,” he said.
McCorison said there’s no way to track all overdoses throughout the state, only those that result in death. In 2015, Maine saw one of the highest annual percentage increases in drug overdoses in the nation, over 26 percent.
In 2016, Maine is now averaging one overdose death per day, according to state data, a trend driven by the emergence of fentanyl as a heroin additive.
The picture of heroin abuse in Aroostook County has been a little different than elsewhere in Maine. A recent county-by-county analysis by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine found Aroostook County, through 2014, had the lowest rate of drug-related deaths per capita of any county in the state.
The current picture, though, is not known. The Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission has suggested using a software system to track all overdoses in real-time across the state, which would help to get a fuller picture of the problem, McCorison said.
“We need to figure out as a community how we’re going to confront this and work toward a solution,” McCorison said. “We have to look at prevention, law enforcement, treatment and recovery.”
On the treatment and recovery front, McCorison said providers such as Aroostook Mental Health Center, Life By Design and others are making headway working with those addicted to opioids through the use of intensive therapy and medications that help taper off withdrawal symptoms.
The two opioid addiction medications available in Aroostook County are Suboxone, an opioid replacement, and Vivitrol, a medication for alcohol and opioid addiction that blocks the effects of opioids.
Methadone, the strictly-controlled opioid replacement medication geared toward the most serious addiction, is not available in Aroostook County, McCorison said. The nearest clinic that dispenses methadone is in Bangor.
“That’s a challenge. There’s definitely a role for methadone in recovery for opioid misuse. It’s a structured and effective tool,” he said.
“My hope is that the last 48 hours is going to drive Aroostook County to further action,” McCorison said. “This is not about good people or bad people. This is about people addicted to readily-available drugs with the potential for horrible outcomes. It’s going to take a community effort to recover.”