Maine experienced one of the steepest declines in drug overdose deaths in the nation in 2023, a 16% drop in fatal overdoses that was more than five times the nationwide decline of 3%, according to newly published national data.

The state reported in February that the number of overdose deaths decreased from 723 in 2022 to 607 in 2023, a 16% drop and the first year-over-year reduction in fatalities since 2018. The new national data revealed that Maine was one of just four states to record a decrease of 15% or more. The others were Kansas, Nebraska and Indiana, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Overdose deaths in Maine and nationwide are primarily driven by opioids – including heroin and fentanyl – but there are also significant numbers of deaths across the country from methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs.

Public health experts said there are numerous reasons for Maine’s decline, including increased access to the life-saving opioid antidote naloxone and the greater availability of treatment programs. But they also cautioned against declaring victory after a decade of steady increases in the annual number of deaths from overdoses fueled by potent and widely available opioids such as fentanyl.

Dr. Noah Nesin, medical director of research and innovation at Community Care Partnership of Maine, said in an interview Wednesday that the state’s approach of expanding access to treatment, and the easy availability of naloxone, are “vital” to combating the opioid crisis.

Nesin said another potential reason for the recent improvement is that doctors in Maine now seem to be open to prescribing higher doses of Suboxone, a medication that helps curb cravings. Nesin said higher Suboxone doses are increasingly necessary because of the more potent fentanyl that is being distributed.

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“We are much more nimble at adapting our systems than other states,” Nesin said.

Gov. Janet Mills issued a statement Wednesday to highlight the new federal data showing Maine’s decline was among the nation’s most dramatic and the administration’s efforts to save lives.

“This encouraging federal data shows that the policies enacted by my administration and the Legislature are making meaningful progress in our fight against the opioid epidemic. While we are cautiously optimistic, we know our work is far from over,” Mills said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to work with partners across the state to prevent substance abuse disorder, to expand treatment options for those facing addiction and to save lives.”

The national data released Wednesday is based on reports submitted by states. Some of the data is preliminary and could change, although the overall number is expected to decline in 2023.

More than 107,000 people died of overdoses nationwide in 2023, a decline of 3% from an estimated 111,000 deaths in 2022, according to the CDC.

It is the first annual decline since 2018 and the second annual decline since the current national drug death epidemic began more than three decades ago.

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But experts also warned that the last time a decline occurred – in 2018 – drug deaths shot up in the years that followed.

“Any decline is encouraging,” Brandon Marshall, a Brown University researcher who studies overdose trends, told The Associated Press. “But I think it’s certainly premature to celebrate or to draw any large-scale conclusions about where we may be headed long-term with this crisis.”

‘HEARTENING NEWS’

CDC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deb Houry called the dip “heartening news” and praised efforts to reduce the tally, but she noted “there are still families and friends losing their loved ones to drug overdoses at staggering numbers,” the AP reported.

Nebraska experienced the steepest decline in drug overdose deaths last year with a 24.6% decrease, while Indiana reported an 18% decline and Kansas, like Maine, saw a 16% drop. Alaska saw overdose deaths soar, increasing 44.1% and topping the 15 states that experienced increased deaths.

The New England region – and all Northeast states – experienced declines, as did most states in the Midwest and South. Meanwhile, Texas and West Coast states, including California, Oregon and Washington, all saw spikes in overdose deaths.

“These results stem from the extraordinary efforts by many people across the state who have stood up to take on the opioid crisis, including those in recovery who are helping those struggling with addiction, and Gov. Mills and the team she put together to lead the state’s efforts,” said Dr. Erik Steele, immediate past president of the Maine Medical Association, and physician leader of the 1,000 Lives Campaign. “The fact that hundreds of Mainers continue to die each year from opioids, however, reminds us that there is much more to do, and that no one – no health care professional, business leader, church leader, parent, community leader, none of us – should be on the sidelines in this fight.”

For January through March of 2024, Maine reported 143 suspected or confirmed overdose deaths, a slight 0.7% decline compared with the same three-month period in 2023.

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