Lighted paper bags stand as memorials to those lost at a drug overdose victims' vigil in Portland's Monument Square on Aug. 31, 2015. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Gordon Smith is Maine’s first director of opioid response.

In her column published on International Overdose Awareness Day, Courtney Allen wrote eloquently about the recent death of her friend Tim Bellavance. Her poignant remembrance touched me, and I want to assure her, and all Maine people, that the governor and I are deeply committed to saving lives and supporting Maine people by ensuring recovery is open and available for anyone struggling with substance use disorder.

Tragic losses like that of Bellavance, and more recently that of noted recovery and harm reduction advocate Jesse Harvey, are vivid reminders of the work that remains to be done to address Maine’s long-standing opioid epidemic. Harvey provided compassionate assistance to hundreds of Mainers in recovery. His leadership will be missed, and I offer my deepest condolences to his family, friends and the members of the recovery community who are grieving his loss.

In mid-July, the Maine attorney general’s office released overdose fatality data for the first six months of 2020, which was an accelerated timeline in order to fully convey the seriousness of the situation in Maine to the public. Deaths from drug overdoses in Maine rose by 23 percent over the final three months of 2019, a tragic trendline that continued into the new year and has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maine is not alone in grappling with this rise in deaths from drug overdoses. As the Wall Street Journal reported just last week, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on persons in recovery has been destabilizing and deadly across the entire country.

Non-pandemic factors are also concerning as well. Two of the most significant we have found is an increase in the number of persons using drugs while alone, which was becoming more prevalent prior to COVID-19, and the changing make-up of the illegal drugs arriving in our state, particularly the increasing prevalence of the powerful opioid painkiller fentanyl.

For nearly two years, I’ve had the privilege to lead an aggressive response to the epidemic of opioid abuse in Maine. Our data-driven and science-based Opioid Response Strategic Action Plan has focused on prevention, treatment, recovery support and harm reduction. We have stepped up our overdose prevention efforts by providing 35,000 doses of the life-saving overdose prevention drug naloxone and expanding certified safe syringe programs to new locations as well.

We have increased access to treatment, particularly medication-assisted treatment by enhancing low-barrier access in emergency departments, bridge clinics and federally qualified health centers across the state. We have increased recovery support services by opening more recovery centers, recovery residences and training an additional 300 recovery coaches. A $6 million federal grant to the Maine Department of Labor is providing career training and employment opportunities to individuals adversely impacted by the opioid epidemic.

After COVID-19 hit, we embraced telehealth for recovery meetings and raised limits on take-home doses of methadone to sustain support services. In July, we had more than 1,300 people register for our virtual Opioid Response Summit, which reinforced the energy and effort that exists in Maine to help people combat substance use disorder.

While all these efforts are valuable, we know that we cannot pave the way to recovery if we can’t keep people alive. The success of support services and overdose prevention relies on Maine people with substance use disorder seeking help, and those in their community helping them see the pathway and promise of recovery.

September is designated nationally as Recovery Month. This month, we expect to announce new strategies to address the needs of Mainers struggling with substance use disorders and the continued impact of the pandemic.

Because a person who has survived an overdose is at high risk of a future fatal overdose, we intend to make behavioral health intervention a primary focus. We also intend to increase awareness of the Good Samaritan Act enacted in 2019, which was encouraged by Allen.

One overdose death is too many, and we will not give up on Mainers who continue to struggle with this chronic disease. The increase in Maine people lost to overdoses is driving us to redouble our efforts. There is more we can do, and I pledge we will do all that we can.