ELLSWORTH — The number of overdose deaths in Maine in 2019 was on track to exceed 2018, according to data released last week by the state.
In Hancock County, five deaths between January and September were attributed to drug overdoses, half the number compared to 2018, according to the numbers.
Statewide in that time frame, 277 residents died from a drug overdose. Opioids were involved in 84 percent of those deaths, the majority of which occurred in Cumberland, York and Penobscot counties.
In 2018, 354 residents died from a drug overdose. While that’s more than the 277 recorded in the first three quarters of 2019, state officials predict that the number will reach 369, which is 4 percent higher than 2018.
Most of the deaths involved two or more drugs, with fentanyl and its analogs resulting in 187 deaths (68 percent), up from 61 percent in 2018.
The percentage of deaths due to heroin was down, but deaths attributable to cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines continued to increase.
“I am concerned that the number of deaths resulting from overdoses remains high,” said Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, whose office released the data, in a statement.
“The data in this report confirms how significant this crisis is. It will take dedication from elected officials, individuals, organizations and communities across the state to get to the other side of this, and I am strongly supportive of the efforts underway to turn the tide.”
Nationwide, the number of drug overdose deaths continued to rise in 2017, according to the latest numbers available from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in 2017, up 9.6 percent compared to the year before. Opioids continued to be the main driver of the deaths, with one of more synthetic opioids involved in 67.8 percent of all drug overdose deaths nationwide.
In a briefing to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee in mid-January, Maine’s Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith laid out how his office plans on fighting the epidemic and acknowledged that for many struggling with opioid use disorder, “finding treatment that is affordable, immediate, and local can be extremely difficult.”
According to reports in the Portland Press Herald, Smith explained that his office had access to $5.5 million allocated by the Legislature from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, money that comes from tobacco settlements.
According to the Press Herald, Smith told the committee his office had access to $6 million to $7 million in combined state, federal and philanthropic funds, which are often “braided” together to carry out its work. None of the money is from the state’s general fund.
Smith laid out strategies that include expanding prevention curriculum in schools, expanding needle exchange programs, making the overdose-antidote drug naloxone available to “anyone who needs it” and implementing more jail and prison-based medication-assisted treatment programs. Washington County has been offering medication-assisted treatment to jail inmates for several months, and Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane told The Ellsworth American that the Hancock County Jail plans to offer the program within the year.
In a previous interview with The American, Smith noted that the state is making progress in some areas, with the percentage of opioid pain pills prescribed down by 41.5 percent statewide since 2013, what he said was the ninth-steepest drop in the country.
“We’ve almost cut in half the opioids prescribed for pain. Can we drive it down lower?” Smith said.
The director attributed the drop in part to a 2016 law that limits the number of milligrams a medical provider can prescribe per day and requires patients receiving more than 100 milligrams per day to be tapered off to that level or below. (There are exceptions, such as for patients with cancer.)
“It’s really the toughest law in the country in terms of all the things it does to limit prescribers,” Smith said.
But there’s no quick fix, as Smith told the Press Herald. “If there is a silver lining in it, it’s that it will remind people that this took 25 years to get here and there is no silver bullet and there is no easy way out of this and it is going to take a long time and unfortunately people will have to be patient and you have to do a lot of things right.”