Drug overdoses claimed 127 lives in Maine during the first three months of 2020, a 23 percent increase over the final quarter of 2019 that partially reflects the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on support for people with substance use disorders.

State officials also project – after a preliminary analysis of data from April and May shortly after the coronavirus pandemic gripped Maine – that the spike in overdose deaths will continue.

“It’s really disheartening,” said Gordon Smith, the state’s opioid response director. “It’s just really alarming and appalling. But we are not going to give up. We are going to double down.”

Smith said that while the pandemic is a contributing factor to overdose deaths, Maine is getting caught up in a number of national trends. One of the most significant, Smith said, is that popular stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine are now more frequently being laced with fentanyl, a dangerous opioid that often causes overdoses.

“The opioid epidemic remains a crisis requiring our immediate, sustained attention,” Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a statement Friday announcing the latest numbers. “The data in this report confirms that the crisis has intensified nationally in the midst of the global pandemic. It remains clear that combating the pandemic, strengthening our public health infrastructure, and taking steps to ensure that Mainers are connected with resources in their community are efforts which are linked with one another.”

Although things could change, the Attorney General’s Office said that preliminary estimates for the second quarter of 2020, which ran from April through June, project 235 overdose deaths for the first half of the year. If those numbers hold, that would mean 470 deaths in a year, a total that would surpass the highest annual death toll in Maine, 417 people in 2017.

“It’s going to be a rough year here for overdoses and nationally as well,” said Dr. Noah Nesin, vice president of medical affairs for Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor, which treats about 1,000 patients per year for substance use disorder.

Gov. Janet Mills lamented the human toll of a public health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Every number in this report is the life of a loved one lost. We grieve with the families, employers and communities diminished by this devastating public health crisis, a public health crisis now made worse by a pandemic that is limiting access to life-saving services and increasing isolation for people in recovery,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement.

Health officials have worried that the forced isolation brought on by the pandemic, coupled with economic uncertainly, would be a recipe for disaster for those with substance use disorder.

Nesin said that the pandemic increased isolation for people in a number of ways, and those who are in the early stages of recovery need to be around other supportive people. One negative trend Nesin said he saw at PCHC is that when they closed group therapy for four months, it was harder to treat people with substance use disorder. Telehealth programs didn’t seem to be as effective.

“We tried to stay connected as much as possible, but it became increasingly difficult,” Nesin said. He said group sessions restarted in July, with new distancing and safety protocols.

On Thursday, the Mills administration will host an Opioid Response Summit in Augusta, where “we will examine the state’s efforts to confront the opioid epidemic, discuss steps to increase and improve access to remote recovery services during the pandemic, and recommit to serving all those who have been affected by substance use disorder in the state of Maine” Smith said.

Smith said that despite the pandemic, the Mills administration continues to open syringe exchange programs, which have increased from seven to 14, and is working on finding more ways to connect people to treatment.

The Mills administration hired Smith shortly after Mills assumed office in 2019 and prioritized fighting the opioid crisis.

But Smith said while “we’ve done a lot of good things, we need more of everything. Clearly, if we are going to lose more than a person every day to drug overdoses, we need to do more.”

Last year, there were 380 deaths attributable to overdose, which was a slight increase over the previous year. Before 2018, the number increased each year for seven consecutive years, going from 155 in 2011 to 417 in 2017.

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