PORTLAND — A combined effort by city departments to prevent drug overdoses, educate the public on proper syringe disposal, and prevent discarded syringes from ending up in city parks was announced Aug. 6.
But treatment opportunities for people trying to get and stay sober, especially those without insurance coverage, remain elusive.
“This problem is not unique to Portland, or to Maine,” City Manager Jon Jennings said, speaking after city police recorded 14 overdose calls on July 31.
Jennings said five of those people suffered cardiac arrest and two died.
After increased complaints about used syringes found in Deering Oaks Park, Jennings said police are patrolling the park more frequently on foot and in vehicles, and city Public Services staffers are cleaning the park seven days a week instead of five.
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck also identified Peppermint Park on Cumberland Avenue, between Smith and Montgomery streets, as having a problem with discarded needles.
The City Hall press conference brought together law enforcement, Fire Department and public health officials, along with Mayor Michael Brennan. They outlined new city outreach programs, including a public service announcement and public education web page detailing symptoms of an overdose, safe drug storage and needle disposal tips, and educational programs and resources.
“If you find discarded needles on public property, do not touch them or pick them up. Call 911 or use our Fix It! Portland app,” Jennings said.
He added the city has seen a 20 percent increase in the administration of naloxone, also known as Narcan, which blocks the effects of opioid overdoses and revives victims.
Narcan is used by MEDCU staff and is also available at the city needle exchange program at the Portland Community Health Clinic on India Street.
The state Legislature also passed a law allowing wider Narcan distribution, but Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said city emergency personnel are still best equipped to administer the drug. He said questions about Narcan use ultimately miss the point.
“Narcan is not our issue,” LaMoria said. “We have a substance abuse problem and people are dying.”
Sauschuck said the overdose calls on July 31 may have been related to “a hot batch” of heroin brought into the city, or because fentanyl manufactured in labs is now being sold to users as heroin.
“They are all bad batches of heroin,” he said.
Sauschuck outlined a three-pronged approach the city would like to take, with equal measures of prevention, law enforcement, and treatment and recovery services. The last part is toughest, Sauschuck and LaMoria conceded.
“Where are you sending them to?,” Sauschuck asked. “Are you sending them to beds or treatment opportunities? There are not enough.”
LaMoria said the first objective is to save lives, but in the aftermath, there is no guarantee someone can get the recovery and treatment they need.
“We transport people to some places that are not the right answer,” he said.
Brennan said the closing of a Westbrook treatment center operated by Mercy Hospital made the problem worse.
Ben Skillings, a lead coach at Amistad, which provides mental health services at 66 State St. to low-income people, did not attend the news conference.
On Aug. 5 he said he gets referrals from hospitals and can offer limited options for help.
“If they do want to do something different and get into recovery, there is where we can do most our good work,” he said. “(But) there are no treatment options for someone who has no money or insurance.”
Stephen Coutreau, program manager at the Portland Community Recovery Center, 468 Forest Ave., became so frustrated this week with the lack of help that he is passing the Internet hat with a GoFundMe site. On Tuesday, the site had raised $2,550 of its $4,500 goal.
Jennings also pointed to the city needle exchange as an effort to prevent transmission of diseases including HIV and hepatitis B and C.
Zoe Odlin-Platz, who administers the program, said enrollment has reached 800 people, while operating on a shoestring budget because it is ineligible for city, state and federal funding.
“We see it as a positive thing, people are getting more education from our program,” she said. An anonymous grant is now funding the exchange, Odlin-Platz said, and one-for-one exchanges are capped at 50 syringes.
Jennings said city staff intend to meet with local pharmacists to outline what the needle exchange does.
Brennan said he and other mayors who have formed a coalition will be meeting with state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew to discuss strategies.
On Aug. 5, Gov. Paul LePage announced he will gather public health and law enforcement officials for a summit “to focus on ways to make an impact in the fight against heroin trafficking and addiction in Maine.”
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck and Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria speak Aug. 5 about an increase in drug overdoses. “We have a substance abuse problem and people are dying,” LaMoria said.
Amistad Lead Coach Ben Skillings and PCRC Program Director Steve Croteau said they are both frustrated by the lack of substance abuse treatment and recovery options as the city combats an increase in drug overdoses.