The state reported an additional 45 confirmed or suspected drug overdose deaths in February, continuing what has been a devastating trend throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest report Thursday from the Maine Attorney General’s Office is part of a recent shift in reporting drug overdose data more regularly. February’s total was down from the 54 deaths reported in January but still higher than the monthly average in 2020, when a record 502 people died in Maine. Monthly overdose deaths ranged from a low of 33 to a high of 53 last year.

Fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid, was the most frequent cause of death last month. Deaths were reported in all but two of Maine’s 16 counties. Cumberland County saw the most, with nine.

“February’s numbers are an important reminder of the opioid crisis’s continued grip on our state and the country,” Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a statement. “I am hopeful that current efforts, including the work of the Opioid Data Sharing Committee highlighted in this report, will continue to shine a light on the need for state and local governments to work proactively with community members and organizations to ensure that people are connected with the resources they need to treat substance use disorder.”

The more detailed monthly reports that will be released going forward fulfill a goal of the state’s Opioid Response Strategic Plan, which calls for more timely and transparent data to identify trends and allocate resources faster in response to drug overdoses, Gov. Janet Mills’ office said. Elected officials and public health advocates say the release of information monthly rather than quarterly will allow for a better response to the overdoses and provide more opportunities to save lives.

Mills, as part of her budget proposal, included $2 million to promote the OPTIONS Initiative, which dispatches mobile response teams in every Maine county to communities with high drug overdose rates. A public campaign and new website were launched in January 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.

Overdose deaths have tripled in less than a decade in Maine. More than 2,000 individuals have died in the last five years alone. Prior to the opioid crisis, which took root in 2014, the number of deaths in Maine was relatively stable, topping out at 179 in 2009 and bottoming at 153 in 2003.

There were signs in 2018 and 2019 that things might be leveling off. Then the pandemic hit.

January’s report from the AG’s office noted 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.”

In December, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 81,000 drug overdose deaths from June 2019 through May 2020, the largest number ever recorded in the country during a 12-month period.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.