In the first nine months of 2020, 380 people died from drug overdoses in Maine, the same number of deaths in all of 2019.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office on Monday released the latest data, which continues a sustained and grim trend that has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the number of deaths recorded in the third quarter of 2020 – 122 – was down 7 percent from the previous quarter, last year is almost certain to set a new record for drug-related deaths.

The previous high of 417 was set in 2017 at the height of the opioid crisis. That number dropped to 354 in 2018 before climbing back up a year later. If trends hold, there could be more than 500 deaths when the final figures for 2020 are revealed.

In a little less than five years, 1,909 people have lost their lives to drug overdoses in Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith issued a joint statement Monday in response to the latest numbers.

“This report is a call to action that underscores the serious challenges Maine faces in stemming the opioid epidemic – challenges that have been made all the more difficult by more lethal drugs infiltrating Maine and by increased isolation resulting from a pandemic that rages all around us,” Mills said. “My administration will not buckle in our efforts to break the cycle of substance use disorder, and we will work hard with treatment providers, law enforcement, and others to prevent the use of drugs in the first place and bridge the divide to treatment and help for those who need it, especially during these difficult times.

“Behind every one of these numbers is a person: a son or daughter, a friend or neighbor, a member of our Maine family. Their loss affects us all, and while there is no simple solution to this complex problem, our collective efforts are needed now more than ever.”

The opioid crisis already was firmly entrenched by the time the pandemic reached Maine in March, but experts have said things have worsened. The report by the attorney general’s office notes that the increase in Maine mirrors national trends and is “likely due at least in part to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and related mitigation measures: isolation, avoidance of or difficulty accessing medical services, and alterations in the illicit drug supply.”

The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is still the deadliest drug, showing up in 65 percent of all deaths, often in combination with other drugs. Heroin or morphine was evident in 12 percent of deaths; cocaine or crack showed up in 25 percent and methamphetamine was present in 16 percent.

Of the 380 deaths reported in the first nine months of 2020, 74 were in Penobscot County, 67 in Cumberland County and 58 in York County. Sagadahoc County, with three deaths, had the fewest.

Deaths continue to increase even despite the increase in access to the naloxone, or Narcan, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

Smith, Maine’s first ever director of opioid response, said one of the biggest reasons for that is because more people are using alone. According to the state’s data, approximately 80 percent of those who died in the first three quarters of 2020 were alone at the time.

“All the Narcan in the state is not going to help the person if they’re alone,” he said.

Smith also said overdoses in more rural areas are more likely to be fatal because it takes longer for emergency responders to arrive.

Mills, as part of her budget proposal last week, included $2 million to promote the OPTIONS Initiative, which dispatches mobile response teams in every Maine county to communities with high rates of drug overdose. A public campaign and new website will launch this week to raise awareness of the OPTIONS program, providing information about the dangers of using substances alone, the signs of a suspected overdose, and a new online tool to help match individuals with treatment options in their communities.

There was a time when overdose deaths in Maine were rare. Before the proliferation of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, the state saw just 34 deaths in 1997. Things first started to spike in the early 2000s, driven largely by prescriptions, which were being diverted and abused.

Between 2002 and 2013, the number of deaths in Maine was stable, topping out at 179 in 2009 and bottoming at 153 in 2003. Beginning in 2014, though, heroin started to supplant prescriptions because it had become cheaper and easier to find. More recently, fentanyl took over.

More information about substance use disorder support and resources is available by calling 211, emailing [email protected], visit the Maine 211 website, or visit the DHHS Office of Behavioral Health’s resource page.

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