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Though down in 3rd quarter, 2020 total drug deaths expected to ‘significantly exceed’ those in 2019

Attorney General Aaron M. Frey says that the numbers are still too high and serve as evidence of the opioid epidemic’s continued force as a public health crisis.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s latest drug death report shows a slight decrease in the third quarter of 2020, but the total year-to-date deaths are on pace to significantly exceed those in 2019.

The report, released by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, shows that 122 deaths in Maine were caused by drugs, a 7-percent decrease from the second quarter. But the 380 deaths caused by drugs in the first three quarters of 2020 represent a 24% increase over the previous three-quarter period, April through December 2019, which had a total of 306.

Eighty-three percent of deaths were caused by at least one opioid, frequently nonpharmaceutical fentanyl, and 81 percent of deaths were caused by two or more drugs.

The report notes, similarly to last quarter’s report, that these increases are comparable to increases being seen nationally, which are “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.”

The report was compiled by Dr. Marcella Sorg and Dr. Kiley Daley of the University of Maine's Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.

RELATED: Drug deaths increase in Maine during first quarter of 2020

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said, “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.”

Maine Gov. Janet Mills said Monday the report is “a call to action that underscores the serious challenges Maine faces in stemming the opioid epidemic – challenges that have been made all the more difficult by more lethal drugs infiltrating Maine and by increased isolation resulting from a pandemic that rages all around us.”

“My Administration will not buckle in our efforts to break the cycle of substance use disorder, and we will work hard with treatment providers, law enforcement, and others to prevent the use of drugs in the first place and bridge the divide to treatment and help for those who need it, especially during these difficult times,” Mills continued. “Behind every one of these numbers is a person: a son or daughter, a friend or neighbor, a member of our Maine family. Their loss affects us all, and while there is no simple solution to this complex problem, our collective efforts are needed now more than ever.”

“Although overdose deaths decreased slightly in this latest report, the underlying trends remain deeply concerning. While our response efforts over the past two years have saved hundreds of lives, we must adapt our approach to the continued challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the dangerous presence of more powerful, and lethal, opioids in our communities,” the state’s Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith said. “Nearly every state in the nation is facing this same crisis. Here in Maine, the OPTIONS initiative is an important step to bring recovery and treatment options to people struggling with drug use. We will work with our partners in the Legislature, government, nonprofits, law enforcement and first responders on further innovative strategies to contain this epidemic and keep Maine people alive.”

RELATED: Mills' budget proposal aims to strengthen COVID-19 response, cover projected revenue shortfalls without raising taxes

Mills’ budget proposal, which was announced Friday, calls for a plan to continuing investing in the state’s opioid response and improving mental health services, including $2 million to promote an initiative to dispatch mobile response teams in every Maine county to communities with high rates of drug overdose.

The Mills administration says a public campaign and new website will launch on Friday 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.

“This latest report provides another window into the experiences of Maine people struggling with substance use disorder in the midst of a global pandemic,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. “While overdose deaths decreased in the third quarter from the previous quarter, more must be done to contain these lethal drugs in Maine. That’s why Governor Mills, despite these challenging economic times, has proposed significant funding for mental health and substance use disorder prevention and treatment in her budget, including $2 million for the OPTIONS program to connect Maine people with intensive outreach in their communities. As we continue this critical work to save lives, we want Maine people to know that help is always available.”

Mills’ biennial budget proposal additionally includes $5.5 million for crisis services in Cumberland County, helping individuals get appropriate treatment in the community; MaineCare coverage for mental health intensive outpatient treatment; and a Justice and Health team of intensive case managers around the state who help prevent incarceration.