Drug overdose deaths surged through the first half of 2020 as the opioid crisis deepened during the pandemic, the Maine Attorney General’s Office reported Wednesday.

There were 258 deaths from January through June, a 27 percent increase over the second half of 2019. If deaths continue at a similar rate in the second half of 2020, the toll this year would break the record of 417 set in 2017. Deaths declined to 354 in 2018 before ticking up again to 380 in 2019.

The report comes on the same day that Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, reached an $8.3 billion settlement with the federal government for illegal and false marketing, and for paying kickbacks to doctors to overprescribe opioids. Prescription opioids such as OxyContin have led many patients to over use pain pills and are sometimes a gateway to street drugs such as heroin. Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to three criminal charges related to fraud and kickback schemes, and the company will be dissolved, according to news reports.

Maine officials said Wednesday that the pandemic has contributed to the opioid crisis.

“It is clear from the data that the increase in deaths from the opioid epidemic can be partially attributed to the increased isolation of living through the pandemic,” said Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey. “The data in this report confirms that the crisis has continued to intensify nationally. It is another reminder that our communities are stronger when we are connected with one another and pro-actively make efforts to help our neighbors.”

Gordon Smith, Maine’s opioid response director, said the pandemic has heightened problems for Mainers struggling with substance use disorder.

“It’s a disease of isolation,” Smith said, also pointing out that treatment centers were either closed or less accessible for much of the spring during the state’s COVID-19 lockdown, but have since reopened. “This is unfortunately exactly what we expected.”

Nationally, the data is still emerging, but the American Medical Association reported early this month that 40 states are experiencing increases in overdose deaths.

In Maine, fentanyl, a powerful opioid, was linked to 65 percent of the fatalities, and 25 percent were linked to prescription opioids, according to the report by Marcella Sorg of the University of Maine. Ten percent of the deaths involved a combination of prescription and illicit opioids, and cocaine or crack cocaine was a factor in 29 percent of the overdose deaths, usually in combination with other drugs, the report said.

Dr. Mary Dowd, who treats patients with substance use disorder in Portland, said treatment is less available, and peer support programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, have moved to virtual meetings.

“It’s not the same. Zoom meetings are helpful but it’s not anything like personal contact. We need the human connection,” Dowd said. She returned to in-person meetings with patients after the spring, she said.

Smith was named opioid response director shortly after Gov. Janet Mills took office in January 2019, and he has overseen a $46 million effort to combat the crisis, including expanding treatment and improving access to harm-reduction strategies such as needle exchanges.

“We need to pay more attention to non-fatal overdoses,” Smith said. “People at the greatest risk of a fatal overdose are people who have survived an overdose. The most important thing we can do is keep people alive to give them a chance at recovery.”

As part of that initiative, the Mills administration Wednesday launched the $2.5 million “OPTIONS” program, which will create mobile response teams in all 16 counties to promote prevention and treatment programs and distribute naloxone, the opioid antidote used to revive people who have overdosed. The mobile response teams will work with local police, firefighters and paramedics to be on the scene, when possible, responding to overdoses and connecting people with substance use disorder treatment.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare challenges in reaching people struggling with substance use disorder,” Mills said in a statement. “We must do more to save lives and to prevent the use of dangerous substances.”

Smith said an improvement in services spurred by the pandemic is the increase in virtual meetings with doctors, and allowing doctors and other health care providers to prescribe Suboxone without seeing the patient in-person. That makes it easier to get Suboxone – which curbs cravings for opioids – to the patients who need it, Smith said.

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