Paper lanterns adorned with messages memorialize those killed by overdoses at a vigil in Portland in 2017. Some 122 Mainers died from drug overdoses in the third quarter of 2020, which represented a 7 percent decrease from the second quarter, but Maine is still on track to record more drug overdose deaths in 2020 than in 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Drug deaths in Maine decreased slightly last summer from the spring, but the number of such deaths that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic are on pace to “significantly exceed” the number that occurred in late 2019, according to the Maine attorney general’s office.

From July through September of last year, 122 Mainers died from drug overdoses, representing a 7 percent decrease from the prior three months, when the pandemic took hold in the state.

But the 380 deaths caused by drugs from January through September 2020 represent a 24 percent increase over the 306 drug-induced deaths from April to December of 2019. Of those 380 deaths, 83 percent were caused by at least one opioid, frequently non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, and 81 percent were caused by two or more drugs.

In a report released Monday, Drs. Marcella Sorg and Kiley Daley of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center said the pandemic likely has increased the number of recent drug deaths in Maine, which mirrors increases in many other states.

“Isolation, avoidance of or difficulty accessing medical services, and alterations in the illicit drug supply,” are suspected factors, they wrote. “The high number of fatal overdoses continues to be driven by illicit, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.”

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread to Maine last March, the state had identified opioid addiction in Maine as an epidemic. Soon after taking office in January 2019, Gov. Janet Mills named an opioid response czar; implemented the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which provided coverage for addiction treatment services; and approved an order setting aside $1.6 million to expand access to an overdose antidote and recovery coaches in health care settings.

Aaron Frey, the state’s attorney general, said that getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control is key to removing barriers to treatment and support for opioid addiction.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....