Maine first state to roll out text alerts when drug overdoses spike

By Matt Byrne

Maine is the first state in the nation to pilot a new statewide text message system that distributes emergency alerts to the public when drug overdoses suddenly increase nearby, a possible sign that a dangerous batch of drugs has hit the market.

The Spike text program was rolled out last month, and it went into action last week for the first time when three people in Portland suffered suspected overdoses within a 24-hour period.

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services teamed up with the Partnership to End Addiction, a national nonprofit, to implement the program, and relies on data culled from ODMap.org, which allows police departments and other first-responder agencies to seamlessly upload information about overdoses.

The effort is the result of years of work to more closely track overdoses nationally. If successful, it could become a low-cost way to prevent death among drug users and provide one more way to reach people who are struggling, advocates say. Advertisement

So far, 85 police agencies in Maine, spread across all 16 counties, contribute data to ODMap.org, a program run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Drug Control Policy Program. The overdose data on the site is not available to the public, but can be used by governments and public health groups to shape policy and act on recent information, said Kevin Collins, director of family services for the Partnership to End Addiction.

So far, about 200 people have signed up for the program in Maine, but that number is expected to increase rapidly.

Collins said he hopes family members and friends of people who are struggling with drug use and addiction will be one more point of contact when someone may decide to get help, or at the very least, stay alive.

“It’s really about letting the community know to be extra mindful about substance use, and also about what to be looking out for,” Collins said.

For instance, in Oneida County in upstate New York, one of a number of regional jurisdictions participating in the pilot project, cocaine spiked with fentanyl triggered a rash of overdoses, and information that might not always be distributed outside of law enforcement could be sent quickly and to the right people.

While not comprehensive, the list of agencies in Maine that contribute real-time overdose data includes Portland, Sanford, Westbrook, Lewiston and many other major population centers. Across the country, about half of counties contribute overdose information to the project.

Anyone can sign up for the alerts by texting the word “Spike” to  (855) 963-5669. The alerts are triggered by three reported overdoses in a 24-hour period in a single county. Anyone living in that county and who has signed up for the alerts will receive a message that includes a link to recovery resources.

Pushing out more data and providing more transparency is one goal of the comprehensive approach that the administration of Gov. Janet Mills takes to the addiction crisis, said Gordon Smith, the governor’s state director of opioid response.

Any tool, however small, to stem the tide of death and give suffering people a chance to choose recovery is a step forward, Smith said.

“For so long, people have been so focused on just the fatalities, and for every fatality there’s at least 10 people who are saved,” Smith said. “We’re getting better and better with the data, so we begin to understand why (it is) that overdoses are increasing (in one area) and decreasing elsewhere. It’s a small way that we believe, by engaging the public and people who are affected, (we can) get more people interested in helping us. If we’re going to see any change in these numbers, it’s going to take the proverbial village.”

Smith said the pilot program is expected to last at least a year, and has cost the state virtually nothing financially. He hopes that as the mapping technology improves, the alerts will be more specific to include a city or town.

“I imagine this will continue after the first year,” he said. “I cannot imagine a time when we won’t be doing this. Fatal overdoses are at an all-time high.”

In 2020, 502 people died of drug-related causes in Maine, the highest yearly total ever recorded and a grim secondary effect of the social disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first text alert in Cumberland County came early Wednesday morning, after three people in Portland overdosed on Tuesday and were revived with the overdose reversal drug Narcan by police or emergency medical technicians, according to the Portland Police Department. Two more people overdosed on Wednesday, including a 35-year-old man who was found unresponsive at the Cumberland County Unified Courthouse on Newbury Street.

In Portland alone, between early July 2020 to July 2021 police administered Narcan 57 times; in nearly all of the cases, the person survived. About 60 percent of the cases in which no Narcan was available resulted in a fatality, according to the police department.

Leslie Clark, executive director at the Portland Recovery Community Center, welcomed the pilot program, and said she planned to tell her staff and colleagues to sign up and spread the word.

“People can’t get into recovery if they’re not still living,” Clark said. “We need to keep people alive, so when we have any connection with someone and save their life, it’s an opportunity for them to get help and heal and get free.”

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