Fatal drug overdoses continue to rise in Maine, setting a pace that could eclipse the record number of deaths that occurred last year during the coronavirus pandemic.

Through April, the state has reported 199 confirmed or suspected overdose deaths, a monthly average of roughly 50 deaths. That’s more than the 163 fatal overdoses during the same period last year, when the monthly average was nearly 41. Overall, a record 504 people died of a drug overdose in 2020, a 33 percent increase over the 380 people who died of a drug overdose in 2019.

State officials attribute the rise to the pandemic, which has caused overdose deaths to surge across the country.

Gov. Janet Mills said in a written statement that she hoped a new accidental drug overdose review panel in the Maine Attorney General’s Office would help officials better understand the circumstances of each death so policies can be adjusted with the aim of preventing additional fatalities. The Accidental Drug Overdose Death Review Panel was created by a bill submitted by Mills and approved by the Legislature.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult in many ways, and this is yet another example of how it has hurt our state and our people. My heart breaks for every single life lost to a drug overdose. Those we lost are friends, loved ones and community members – people with meaningful lives,” Mills said. “As we reflect upon those we lost, let us honor their lives by rededicating ourselves to ending the scourge of substance disorder and overdose deaths in our state, preventing addiction in the first place, and expanding access to treatment and recovery options.”

The state on Wednesday released monthly overdose statistics for March and April. The monthly reports are part of a statewide effort to provide more transparency and up-to-date information to help public health officials and community organizations respond to overdose deaths.

In April, the state reported 48 probable overdose deaths, including 10 confirmed and 38 suspected. That’s 10 more than last April, which was one month into the pandemic, but nearly 10 fewer than the 57 probable overdoses deaths in March. That followed 42 fatal overdoses in February and 55 in January.

In 2020, the monthly average was 42 deaths, with a range of 34 to 53. The average so far for 2021 is 50, ranging from 42 to 57.

Fentanyl continues to be the leading killer, accounting for 76 percent of the confirmed deaths this year.

Deaths have been reported in all 16 counties this year, and all but one county – Knox – reported a confirmed or suspected death in April. Penobscot and Kennebec counties each reported seven deaths, the highest in April, followed by Androscoggin, Cumberland and and York counties, which reported five each.

The highest number of overdose deaths to date this year have been in Cumberland and Penobscot counties, each of which has reported 34 confirmed or suspected fatal overdoses. They are followed by Androscoggin (25) and York (23).

Maine had seen a reduction in overdose deaths in 2018 and 2019, but the pandemic impacted efforts to combat substance use disorder and prevent overdose deaths and fatalities rose substantially in 2020.

Mills outlined other measures her administration was taking to combat the epidemic, including the OPTIONS program, which places mobile response teams in each county to engage communities with high overdose rates to promote drug prevention and harm reduction strategies, connect people to recovery services and treatment, and distribute naloxone, which can reverse an overdose.

As of May 1, the state had purchased nearly 169,000 doses of naloxone and distributed more 89,000 doses through public health and hard reduction organizations. Officials say that’s helped reverse 2,217 overdoses.

And the state is recruiting and training more than 530 recovery coaches.

Jeanne Lambrew, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in a written statement that the pandemic has “added pressure” to people struggling with substance use disorder.

“This time of exceptional challenges has put the safety of Maine children and families at risk and reverberated through our communities and our state as a whole,” Lambrew said. “We are committed to doing more to save lives and promote pathways to recovery. This is why in addition to OPTIONS, we’re bolstering StrengthenME, a comprehensive initiative to help anyone experiencing stress due to the pandemic through free resources, tools and community connections. We want Maine people to know that help is always available.”

Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a written statement that officials need to better understand how the pandemic has impacted overdose deaths.

“It is important to recognize and mourn those who have died, and we must consider the data behind these deaths, particularly as it relates to the prevalence of fentanyl in overdoses,” he said. “The pandemic has impacted efforts and contributed to these nationwide trends, but more work needs to be done to fully understand the impact of the pandemic on drug overdose deaths. We must act with continued urgency to ensure that all appropriate systems are directing those caught up in the epidemic to resources that will assist in rehabilitation.”

Frey highlighted the MaineMOM program, which aims to improve care for pregnant and postpartum people with opioid use disorder and their infants.

“No single intervention will solve this crisis,” Frey said. “I am hopeful that initiatives underway in the Mills Administration, such as the MaineMOM Initiative highlighted in the March 2021 report, will lead to positive outcomes. It is incumbent on leaders from all across Maine to come to the table to pursue solutions which will save lives.”

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