PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The number of people who died from drug overdoses during the pandemic year rose to an all-time high in Maine, surpassing 500 for the first time, officials said Wednesday.
The 504 deaths in 2020 represented a 33% increase over the previous year and easily surpassed the state’s previous high of 418 overdose deaths in 2017, according to the annual report.
Gov. Janet Mills said the jump in deaths represents “yet another example” of how the pandemic hurt the state.
“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 in a statement.
While officials blamed the pandemic for the spike in deaths, the exact correlation was unclear, wrote Marcella Sorg, the report’s author at the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.
Nine-one percent of the deaths were accidental overdoses and the number of suicides remained flat, and only one of the victims with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 actually tested positive for the virus, the report said.
“We are doing more research to explore whether characteristics of the pandemic, such as isolation, access to medical services” or other factors contributed to the spike in deaths, she wrote.
The annual report compiled for the offices of the attorney general and chief medical examiner showed that fentanyl continues to be a driver in overdoses and deaths in the state.
Non-pharmaceutical fentanyl contributed to 336 of the deaths, representing a 30% increase from the year before, the report said. Altogether, opioids accounted for 83% of deaths, nearly always in combination with alcohol or other drugs, it said.
The state also saw a dramatic increase in illegal stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine used in combination with opioids, the report said.
One surprising finding was that overdose deaths plateaued in the state’s most populous county, home to Portland, while the numbers grew in most other counties. Cumberland County's proportion of the total drug deaths dropped by 7 percentage points, the report said.
The annual report was released a day after Mills signed into law emergency legislation establishing a drug overdose review panel.
The panel will be tasked with reviewing a subset of overdose deaths in order to learn from the circumstances and adjust state policies to reduce the number of accidental overdoses.
“We remain committed to doing everything we can to help Maine people with substance use disorder access treatment, and most important, keep them alive,” said Gordon Smith, who oversees the state’s opioid dependency reduction efforts.