Lighted paper bags stand as memorials to those lost at a drug overdose victims' vigil in Portland's Monument Square in August 2015. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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The coronavirus pandemic has rightly gotten a lot of attention, from state and federal officials and the public. But another epidemic, that of drug overdoses, continues to be a growing problem in Maine and around the country.

In just the first three months of 2020, 127 Maine people died of overdoses. That’s a 23 percent increase from the last quarter of 2019, according to figures from the Attorney General’s Office and the Maine medical examiner’s office.

Preliminary estimates from the two offices project a total of 132 drug overdose deaths for the second quarter of 2020.

These worrying numbers put Maine on track to exceed the 418 overdose deaths recorded in 2017, the deadliest year on record.

Marcella Sorg, of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine and the author of the report, attributed the rise in overdose deaths to “the effects of the pandemic, including social isolation, economic difficulty, and reluctance to seek medical attention.”

“The opioid epidemic remains a crisis requiring our immediate, sustained attention,” Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a statement in mid-July when the report was released.

“It remains clear that combating the pandemic, strengthening our public health infrastructure and taking steps to ensure that Mainers are connected with resources in their community are efforts which are linked with one another,” he added.

This is an urgent reminder of the difficult work to be done. Maine has invested money and time in new and expanded efforts to reduce substance use disorder. While progress has been made in some areas, such as increased access to the overdose-reversing drug Narcan and increased access to treatment through the expansion of Medicaid, this work is failing to stem the deadly epidemic of substance use.

The coronavirus pandemic has rightly demanded our attention and resources. Evidence shows that Maine’s response has helped to keep the number of COVID-19 cases low.

But that response includes requirements that have led to social isolation and economic displacement for too many Mainers.

“Every number in this report is the life of a loved one lost. We grieve with the families, employers and communities diminished by this devastating public health crisis, a public health crisis now made worse by a pandemic that is limiting access to life-saving services and increasing isolation for people in recovery,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement accompanying the July report. “I want all Maine people struggling with substance use disorder to know that even during the pandemic, help is still available. You are not alone. There is no quick or easy cure, but we will continue to put the full force of this Administration behind your recovery.”

When they finally return to Augusta, lawmakers will face huge challenges, especially as the state faces an expected $ 1.4 billion shortfall in revenues over the next three years.

Monday is International Overdose Awareness Day, yet another reminder about the persistence of this long standing epidemic. These challenges can’t be an excuse to turn our backs on those who are struggling with substance use. Money will be limited in coming years, but that can’t be a reason to curtail treatment and other supports that are needed to help Mainers access and complete treatment.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...