PORTLAND — City officials say a recent increase in overdose reports, and five suspected overdose deaths, are cause for concern.
Zoe Odlin-Platz, who coordinates the city needle exchange, and Oliver Bradeen, the Police Department substance use disorder liaison, said statistics and anecdotal evidence show new opioid strains in the city are more toxic and harder to identify.
“We know fentanyl is around; it seems like there are new synthetic opiates. The experiences people feel are different than an opiate high,” Odlin-Platz said Aug. 10.
From July 23 through Aug. 6, there were 22 emergency 911 calls for opioid overdoses, including five on Aug. 2, Bradeen said. Two Aug. 2 calls involved the same person, about 12 hours apart.
The Office of the State Medical Examiner determines if a death is caused by an overdose, but Bradeen said five of six reported deaths from July 23 to Aug. 6 are suspected to be from opioid use.
“I am always wary of jumping to conclusions and spreading fear, but the only thing I can think of contributing to this is something really strong on the street,” he said Aug. 10, noting that victims ranged in age from 26 to 52.
Since February, Bradeen has responded with police to overdose calls at homes or hospitals, or he seeks out the victims at a later date.
“We are seeing something that seems significant and different,” he said.
City police can test for the presence of heroin, but Bradeen is now working with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to more accurately test for the drugs sold and used.
A complicating factor in overdoses may be from legal synthetic cannabis, which is marketed as Spice, according to Bradeen and Odlin-Platz.
“It seems to intensify the effects of the opiates,” Odlin-Platz said.
Odlin-Platz helps provide some services at the needle exchange, where more than 900 clients exchanged 145,000 needles in 2015, she said. Clients can also receive anonymous counseling and testing.
“We are hearing time and time again from people actively using how strong (opioids are),” she said. “This summer feels really different.”
Fentanyl use has been increasing since 2014. It can be mixed with heroin, but is increasingly sold on its own, sometimes to unknowing users who think they are buying heroin. It was attributable in 87 of 272 overdose deaths in Maine in 2015, state Attorney General Janet Mills said in March.
The overall increase to 272 overdose deaths from 209 in 2014 came in part because of “an increase in deaths caused by heroin and/or fentanyl” in the second half of 2014, Mills said.
The overall number of overdose calls to police from January through July this year is 206, up from 197 in the same 2015 time period, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Aug. 11.
Bradeen is working to refine the statistics and determine how many overdose calls are opioid related. Of 25 overdose calls received from July 23 to Aug. 6, 22 were opioid related, he said.
Summer has historically brought increases in overdoses. In the first weekend of July 2015, police responded to 14 overdose calls in a 24-hour period. Two of the overdoses were fatal, City Manager Jon Jennings said in August 2015.
Demand for narcolex kits, known by the Narcan tradename, is also increasing at the needle exchange, Odlin-Platz said. Narcan immediately reverses the effects of an overdose by blocking the brain’s opioid receptors.
Yet when it comes to saving an overdose victim, a phone is as important; Bradeen and Odlin-Platz said as they urge people to call 911 first.
“It is the essential way to know your Narcan administration is going to be effective. It can help until the medical professionals arrive,” Odlin-Platz said.
Bradeen said police make saving a victim their top priority. He goes on as many calls as he can to help a victim recover and get help and resources.
The needle exchange, which is at the India Street Public Health Center, 103 India St., is privately funded and has distributed about 1,500 kits since January 2015, with half the kits given out in 2016.
Odlin-Platz said she is aware of at least 250 overdose reversals with Narcan from the needle exchange, but the number could be larger, because not all clients report reversals. She is certain the clients sharing information with her are worried.
“The five deaths that occurred really hit home to some of our clients,” she said. “Whenever it happens, people get scared. I’ve certainly had instances where people lose somebody or see an overdose reversal and come in wanting a change in their lives.”
As part of the current city budget, almost all of the India Street Public Health Center services will be shifted to Greater Portland Health, formerly the Portland Community Health Center, by Dec. 31.
Odlin-Platz said the uncertainty created during the budget process did not drive clients away.
“We have been consistent with our message; whatever happens, we will keep them informed,” she said.