More drug users seek treatment amid pandemic

ELLSWORTH — The coronavirus pandemic may be having at least one positive impact on substance use disorder in Hancock County: more people seem to be seeking treatment in the wake of the virus, said Richard Shute, outpatient site coordinator for Downeast Treatment Center.

“Probably in the two weeks after the lockdown first started we saw a doubling of client intakes,” said Shute.

“There’s a lot of theories about why that might be,” he continued. “Street supply of opioids and Suboxone kind of dried up and people weren’t getting out. People who were buying off the street suddenly thought ‘I’d better get into treatment.’”

There were nine overdose deaths in Hancock County in 2019, according to state data released last week, and a total of 380 drug-related deaths statewide, up 7 percent over 2018 but still lower than the 417 death peak in 2017. The majority of statewide deaths were caused by opioids, nearly always in combination with other drugs or alcohol.

Shute said that at Downeast Treatment Center, clients come “in and out of services,” but that the opioid use disorder program is currently serving about 50 active clients.

The center, which opened its State Street office in 2018, has a range of services, including outpatient mental health options, a mobile crisis team that travels to homes and hospitals to help those in crisis and a sexual assault team that meets with victims.

“We’ve transitioned for most of those services to telehealth,” said Shute. Some aspects of the opioid use disorder program, said Shute, can’t be done remotely (such as urine screens, which are required to get a prescription for Suboxone and are contracted out), in which case the nonprofit has put in place cleaning and safety protocols, and will make exceptions.

Clients are still expected to attend online group meetings, if possible, but Shute acknowledged that access to technology and broadband has made it difficult in some cases.

“There’s a large segment of the population that is really technologically challenged in the sense they don’t have good internet access,” said Shute. “They don’t have cell phone plans, they buy minutes.”

Some of the younger clients the group works with, however, seem to prefer the online treatment model, he said. The organization had already been working toward implementing telehealth services to reach those clients who may have to travel long distances for services, said Shute.

“So when the first lockdown started to occur here we were actually able to get up to speed with telehealth in a matter of days.”

“I am thrilled to learn about this development,” said Gordon Smith, the state’s director of opioid response, in a press release announcing the shift to virtual services.

“The expansion of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) services by the DTC to patients with a substance use disorder is a significant enhancement of the services in Downeast Maine,” said Smith. “The establishment of low barrier access to MAT is a high priority in the Governor’s Opioid Response Strategic Plan and to be able to advance this program virtually allows patients in these two rural counties an opportunity for treatment without leaving their home. Congratulations to all involved in bringing it to fruition.”

Shute said there was a roughly 20 percent drop in attendance at online group meetings at first, but that those had since stabilized.

“The treatment center is focused on folks who are at a stage in their recovery,” said Shute, where “they’ve tried a variety of different things and had mixed success. Those are clients who struggle with their substance use issues and they struggle with everything around that.”

The center has a sliding fee scale for patients who don’t have insurance and is in the second year of a two-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that covers the cost of treatment and medication for those who can’t pay, administered via Healthy Acadia’s Treatment Fund.

The center is involved in a partnership between several area hospitals, the Aroostook Mental Health Center and Healthy Acadia. The grant will likely be renewed, said Shute.

What does he most want residents of Hancock and Washington counties to know?

“We’re still here and still available. The treatment model has changed a bit and that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future, but it’s a vehicle that’s working well for most clients, after the initial getting used to it.”

For more information or client referrals, call 1-800-244-6431 or the Ellsworth office at 667-6890 or visit For emergency services and mental health crisis situations, call 1-888-568-1112. For sexual assault response services call 1-800-871-7741.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Bar Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]
Kate Cough

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