Maine recorded its worst year for drug overdoses in 2020, with 502 deaths, and preliminary numbers for January 2021 indicate the numbers are still rising.
The data released Thursday by the Maine Attorney General’s Office adds to a sustained and grim trend that has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new information about overdose deaths last year comes as the attorney general’s office has begun releasing overdose statistics every month instead of quarterly, a move welcomed by people working in the recovery community who say increased reporting will help save lives.
The 502 fatal overdoses in 2020 surpass the previous high of 417 deaths in 2017, which at the time was considered to be the height of the opioid crisis. That number dropped to 354 in 2018 before climbing back up a year later.
Maine averaged 42 drug overdose deaths per month in 2020, and initial reports have the state logging 58 confirmed or suspected drug overdose deaths in January, the worst month for fatal overdoses in a year and much higher than January 2020.
“January’s numbers are a stark and tragic reminder of how pervasive and deadly the opioid epidemic is,” Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a written statement Thursday. “We must urgently work to connect Mainers who are struggling with substance use disorder with the resources they need to protect them and help them advance in recovery, and we must come together as a community to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control so that barriers to treatment and support are removed.”
Experts have said the coronavirus pandemic has likely worsened the opioid crisis. A January report from the AG’s office notes that the increase in Maine mirrors national trends and is “likely due at least in part to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and related mitigation measures: isolation, avoidance of or difficulty accessing medical services, and alterations in the illicit drug supply.”
In December, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 81,000 drug overdose deaths from June 2019 through May 2020, the largest number ever recorded in the country during a 12-month period.
The deaths in Maine during January 2021 are still preliminary, with 29 confirmed drug overdose deaths and 29 suspected. The previous high over the past year was 53 in June. There were 43 deaths in January 2020.
Gordon Smith, Maine’s director of opioid response, said the preliminary and final reports on the numbers of monthly deaths are not expected to change much, with perhaps one or two cases potentially being reclassified as not caused by an overdose.
A detailed breakdown of the 502 deaths during 2020 has not been released, while the state did release some details in its first monthly report about the deaths in January.
The most frequent cause of the January deaths is non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, according to the report compiled by Dr. Marcella Sorg of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Fifty-two percent of January’s deaths were in the 40-59 age demographic, and 62 percent of the deaths were among men.
Among the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who died in January was Crystal Waugh, a 39-year-old former program director of Journey House Recovery in Sanford. She died of an apparent overdose on Jan. 30.
Waugh’s mother, Joanne Goodreau of Sanford, expressed shock Thursday after learning that there were 58 fatal drug overdoses in Maine during January.
“Oh, my goodness … I know two of them,” Goodreau said. “It’s sad. I feel sad for the people who lost their lives to addiction and sorrow for the families who have to live on.”
Another life lost was Garrett Dee, a 28-year-old commercial fisherman from Jay who died of an apparent overdose on Jan. 18 – just days after moving into a sober house in Portland.
Dee’s sister, Rilynn Snow of Westbrook, said Thursday the increase in overdose deaths doesn’t surprise her.
“It’s insane to me that so many people … 58 people who didn’t have a solution,” Snow said. “Fifty-eight people who were so lost and broken and felt there was no other way to get relief other than to numb themselves. It’s sad for me to think because I know there’s another way to live. It’s hard in the beginning and it feels like it’s not worth it, but it is.”
Courtney Allen, policy director for the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, sees data about overdoses in Maine on a daily basis through her work, but said the overall numbers are likely to come as a surprise to everyday Mainers who don’t understand the scope of the problem. She hopes the more timely data released by the state will help people understand that this is a public health crisis that needs a response similar to the effort to counter COVID-19.
“The recovery community lost a lot of people last year. We see this is a signal from the Mills administration that we’re going to double down in 2021 and we’re not going to lose that many people again,” Allen said. “It’s important to the recovery community to see the Mills administration is taking the overdose deaths as seriously as the COVID-19 deaths.”
The more detailed monthly reports that will be released going forward fulfill a goal of the state’s Opioid Response Strategic Plan, which calls for more timely and transparent data to identify trends and allocate resources faster in response to drug overdoses, Gov. Janet Mills’ office said. Elected officials and public health advocates say the release of information monthly rather than quarterly will allow for a better response to the overdoses and provide more opportunities to save lives.
Mills, as part of her budget proposal, included $2 million to promote the OPTIONS Initiative, which dispatches mobile response teams in every Maine county to communities with high drug overdose rates. A public campaign and new website launched in January to raise awareness of the OPTIONS program, providing information about the dangers of using substances alone, the signs of a suspected overdose, and a new online tool to help match individuals with treatment options in their communities.
Mills said the timing of the new reports is important “given the disturbing increase in overdose deaths during the pandemic.”
“This new, more comprehensive data will be a powerful tool that we and others can use to help Maine people,” she said in a statement. “With these deeper insights, the state and Maine’s substance use counselors, hospitals, first responders and law enforcement can better and more adeptly respond to the scourge of opioid addiction in our communities.”
The more timely release of data also will help inform the public and enable agencies that help people suffering from substance use disorder respond more quickly to trends, Smith said.
“By increasing our understanding of what is happening with overdoses in Maine and sharing this data broadly with front-line responders and the public, we can help keep individuals struggling with substance abuse alive,” Smith said. “The opioid crisis in Maine is often changing and now we will have access to more complete and timely data to shift our response to meet those changes.”
The monthly overdose data will provide the Augusta Police Department’s OPTIONS liaison important demographic information that can be used to provide potentially life-saving interventions for residents struggling with substance abuse disorder, Chief Jared Mills said.
“Maine’s recovery community is robust, but our collective hearts break with every overdose death that might have been prevented,” Ronald Springel, program manager for the Maine Association of Recovery Residences, said in a statement. “Sharing this important data monthly of both non-fatal and fatal overdoses gives us a chance to reach out to help those who have survived but are at high risk of a subsequent overdose.”
More information about substance use disorder support and resources is available by calling 211, emailing [email protected], visiting the Maine 211 website, visiting the state’s Know Your Options resource page or visiting the DHHS Office of Behavioral Health’s resource page.
Staff Writer Melanie Creamer contributed to this story.