Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 14, 2023 and The Weekly Packet, September 14, 2023
Saving lives and fighting stigma
OFIP at the Blue Hill Fair and on the Island
Opiate-Free Island Partnership, an Island nonprofit, distributed over 400 boxes of the overdose reversal drug Narcan from its booth at the Blue Hill Fair.
by Will Robinson
While the fryers bubbled and the Ferris wheel spun at the Blue Hill Fair this year, Stonington nonprofit Opiate-Free Island Partnership distributed over 400 boxes of the lifesaving overdose drug Naloxone, known by its brand name, Narcan. The public training and distribution of Narcan is part of OFIP’s ongoing effort to prevent overdose deaths, raise awareness about Maine’s opioid crisis and help those with substance abuse disorder to recover.
“Dead people don’t recover,” said Ashley Pesek, executive director of OFIP. “We want to keep our friends and neighbors alive.”
With the help of Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital, OFIP set up a fair booth next to the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. Over the four days of the fair, the booth became so popular that they had to restock their supply of Narcan twice. “It went amazingly well,” Pesek said. “We continue to have a wide range of community members approach the booth.”
This was OFIP’s second year at the fair and its third as a distributor of Narcan. Pesek said the success of the program has grown steadily year after year.
For every opioid death in Maine in 2022, Pesek said there were 13 reversals due to Narcan. This means that out of the 10,483 overdoses reported last year, 723 were fatal, and 9,760 were successfully reversed. According to OFIP, 2,251 overdose reversals were performed by a member of the public who had Narcan.
“That’s why we see it as a measure of public health to have Narcan available to the public,” Pesek said.
At the fair, Pesek encountered a man who completed the Narcan training with OFIP last year who was able to reverse an overdose. “A local example of someone who thought they generally wouldn’t need it but had it when they did and saved someone’s life,” Pesek said.
The OFIP booth was also distributing test strips for fentanyl and a new deadly substance called xylazine. According to Pesek, the test strips allow anyone attempting to use substances to “make informed decisions on what they’re going to use.”
According to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over 80 percent of all overdose deaths are caused by fentanyl.
Pesek said drug dealers cut their opioid with substances like fentanyl and xylazine “because it’s cheap and they can make a lot more money that way.” The data on Maine opioid overdoses shows that the increase in overdose deaths is linked to the increased use of fentanyl.
For example, in 2016, approximately 187 of the reported 367 overdose deaths involved fentanyl, around 51 percent. In contrast, of the 723 overdose deaths in Maine last year, 556 involved fentanyl, roughly 77 percent.
“The amount of fentanyl needed to be fatal is about the size of a grain of salt,” Pesek said.
In addition to saving lives, Pesek said bringing the problem of opioid abuse disorder into the public eye helps fight the stigma surrounding the disease.
“We want to create a community where we don’t care what your disease is, we are going to show up for you without judgment,” she said.
Opiate-Free Island Partnership Board Chair Charlie Osborne said that data on opioid deaths only goes to the county level, so there is “frustratingly little” information about how they affect individual towns. However, he sees the sheer amount of requests for Narcan as “as much evidence of a crisis than anything else.”
From the data he does have, Osborne said that Hancock County has twice as many overdose deaths per capita than the national average, a fact he feels is not widely known or, because of stigma, is ignored altogether.
“There’s two things that are killing people in this country: one is fentanyl and the other is stigma,” he said.
Going further, staying positive
In addition to the Blue Hill Fair, which both Pesek and Osborne called “a total success,” OFIP hosted a more celebratory event at the Island Community Center on Sunday, September 10.
Spearheaded by OFIP member Saige Brages, the event was a “celebration of recovery.” Attendees were treated to free food, music and games along with speeches from recovered addicts.
“What we’re trying to do here is create a positive conversation around substance abuse,” Brages said, adding that this would be the first of several events put on by OFIP in the near future.
Among the speakers was State Rep. Nina Milliken, who is going on four years in recovery. In her brief words to the small crowd, she encouraged recovering addicts to rely on their community and to consider getting involved in local politics.
To close out the event, Pesek said, “People cannot recover without their community.”
For more information on Narcan trainings, opioid data or OFIP events, visit facebook.com/opiatefreeisland or contact Pesek at OFIP.firstname.lastname@example.org">class="caps">OFIP.email@example.com.