by Lia Russell
An elevated number of Maine people died of drug overdoses in March and April, continuing a trend of rising drug overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data released Wednesday.
Some 57 people died of either confirmed or suspected drug overdoses in March, and 45 people died of overdoses in April, according to reports released by the Maine attorney general’s office.
So far this year, Maine has averaged nearly 50 overdose deaths for each month that data are available, compared with about 40 deaths each month in the first four months of 2020. That average puts 2021 on track to be more deadly than 2020, which was the deadliest year to date of the opioid epidemic.
Maine and much of the nation saw drug overdose deaths rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it disrupted daily life, isolated people from their social contacts and put many people out of jobs.
The synthetic opioid fentanyl has been responsible for the vast majority of those deaths, according to the reports. It was the cause of death in 76 percent of drug overdose deaths between January and April 2021, and it was responsible for 83 percent of overdose deaths in 2020.
Fentanyl is often cut into heroin, but is 100 times more potent.
The overdose antidote naloxone was administered in 38 percent of overdose deaths in the first four months of 2021, up from 33 percent of the time in the first four months of 2020.
Marcella Sorg, a forensic anthropologist who compiled the data and directs the Rural Drug and Alcohol Research Program at the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, cautioned against drawing conclusions based on month-to-month fluctuations.
She also noted that numbers can change as more information becomes available as drug deaths are investigated, leading investigators to later revise numbers.
“It’s a process of determining cause of death,” she said. “When cases go to the medical examiner, we have to do toxicology testing and find medical records. Sometimes it goes by quickly and other times cases lag.”
The state in February began releasing what it said would be monthly reports on overdose deaths, within weeks of the end of each month. It released the monthly report on January overdose deaths in late February, and the February report in late March.
Sorg said the decision to release reports monthly instead of quarterly was due to a desire to release information more quickly, rather than “waiting for cases to complete.”
The attorney general’s office, however, did not release the March and April reports until Wednesday, more than three weeks into June.