Drug overdoses in Maine continued to kill an average of more than one person a day during the first half of 2017.
Between January and June, 185 deaths were linked to drug overdoses, with most — 84 percent — caused by an opioid, according to data released Wednesday by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. The number of deaths represents a slight decrease from the same period last year, when 193 people died.
The news underscored the persistent nature of a public health crisis that killed a record number of people in the previous two years.
“The opioid epidemic continues to devastate our communities, both rural and urban, all across Maine,” Mills said. “It is the greatest challenge of our time.”
Meanwhile, the number of deaths linked to the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl continue to rise, according to the data from Dr. Marcella Sorg of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, who has tracked overdose deaths and trends for the state for years.
Fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and is often mixed with heroin to make it stronger, caused 61 percent of the deaths in the first half of 2017, the new data show. In 2013, a total of nine Maine deaths were linked to the drug. In 2016, 195 deaths were caused by fentanyl.
Mixing drugs, both prescription and illicit street drugs, led to a majority of the deaths, with 89 percent caused by two or more drugs and the average involving three different drugs. The report tracked opioid, fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and prescription drugs.
Prescription pain pills caused 30 percent of the 2017 deaths, cocaine or crack was linked to 18 percent and heroin caused 22 percent of the overdose deaths, the new data show.
About 75 percent of heroin users report they got their first taste of opioids from the medicine cabinets of family and friends, according to a 2014 national survey.
The use of the opiate antidote naloxone, often sold as Narcan nasal spray, increased over the last year in Maine, and was administered in about one-third of the cases where someone died so far this year.
“The inability to give Naloxone quickly is the most common reason why it is sometimes ineffective,” said Mills, whose office has distributed more than 2,300 doses of naloxone to law enforcement agencies in the state in the last year. “But these numbers suggest that more and more first responders and families have access to it and are administering it when needed.”
The drug was used 241 times successfully to revive people, Mills said.
Dr. Noah Nesin, Penobscot Community Health Care vice president of medical affairs, said the fact that the number of overdose deaths is relatively flat may be a good sign for Maine.
“All the [nationwide] projections are that the numbers will continue to increase because the epidemic has not yet reached its peak,” Nesin said, adding he was hopeful that the relatively stable numbers in Maine showed that the greater availability of Narcan was helping. “It’s a sign,” he said.
Lawmakers in Augusta this year passed an emergency bill to tweak a year-old law to allow pharmacists to sell naloxone over the counter and without a prescription. Still, many pharmacies are withholding the medicine until the state’s pharmacy board creates the rules, with Walgreen’s being the exception.
LePage submitted two bills this year regarding the state’s drug problem that were both defeated: one that would have forced communities to charge people who repeatedly overdose for the cost of any opioid antidote used, and another to require mandated reporters to file a child abuse report to the Department of Health and Human Services if they think a pregnant woman is using drugs or alcohol.
Nationally, more than 64,000 Americans died by overdose in the first nine months of 2016, compared with the record number of 52,404 people who overdosed in all of 2015, according to estimates released last month by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Donald Trump has said he is going to officially declare the opioid crisis a national emergency so that federal funds and other resources can be used, but he has yet to do so.
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