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Maine Saw A Record High Number Of Overdose Deaths Last Year

Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Gordon Smith, Director of Maine's Opioid Response

A record high number of people died from drug overdoses in Maine last year as the coronavirus pandemic made it harder for them to safely use drugs or seek addiction treatment.

According to the latest data from the Maine attorney general’s office, just over 500 people died after using drugs such as the synthetic opioid fentanyl and the stimulants cocaine and methamphetamine, often in combination with each other. The previous high of 417 overdose deaths was set in 2017. 

Gordon Smith, director of Maine’s opioid response, said that the recent uptick has been driven by two broad factors: drugs circulating in Maine continue to be very lethal, and people using them are often alone. 

“Some of that’s associated, of course, with the pandemic, so it’s a perfect storm and we can’t walk away from it. We really just need to double down and do more to identify people at risk and help them,” Smith said. 

As part of its ongoing response to the opioid epidemic, the state also announced on Thursday that it will start sharing overdose numbers on a monthly basis, starting with figures showing that January was deadlier than any month of last year.  

Previously, the data were only shared each quarter, but the Mills administration has worked with various state agencies and medical providers to ensure that is reported more regularly, according to Smith. 

He said that more frequent data reporting will help better target resources such as naloxone, a medication which reverses opioid overdoses, to the parts of the state that need it.

“Or if we see that in a given county that now there is almost no opioids, it’s all stimulants, well then maybe we ought not to be sending as much naloxone up there, but doing some other kind of intervention,” Smith said. 

The state has also been working to hire at least one outreach worker in every Maine county to help steer people with substance use disorder who have recently overdosed to addiction treatment and other resources.

However, the pandemic has held back the state’s response in other ways, Smith said, such as preventing some jails and hospitals from ramping up access to medication-assisted treatment for people with opioid use disorder.