More Mainers died from drug overdoses in January than in any month last year, and last year marked the deadliest year on record of Maine’s opioid epidemic, according to a new state report released Thursday.
Fifty-eight people in Maine died of fatal drug overdoses in January, according to the report. Half of those deaths are confirmed to be caused by drugs while the other half are suspected drug deaths.
The 502 drug overdose deaths seen in 2020 marked the highest number seen in Maine in more than a decade.
Overdose deaths began trending upward early in the last decade, and 2017 marked the previous deadliest year, with 417 overdose deaths. The 2020 figure was more than double the number of overdose deaths seen in 2014, the first year the state toxicology reports first recorded deaths due to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is often cut into heroin but is more potent. It was also 32 percent higher than the 2019 total of 380 overdose deaths.
The rise in deaths in 2020 reflects both the continuation of the yearslong, deadly opioid epidemic fueled by the rise of fentanyl, as well as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which overdose deaths have accelerated nationwide as the pandemic has disrupted daily life, isolated people from their social contacts and put many people out of jobs.
Fentanyl was involved in 67 percent of the overdose deaths in 2020 and 69 percent of January’s deaths. Methamphetamine was involved in 31 percent of the January 2021 deaths, cocaine in 28 percent and pharmaceutical opioids in 14 percent. Many died from combining fentanyl and cocaine or methamphetamine.
January 2021’s number is far higher than the monthly average last year of 42 overdose deaths. It is closest to the 53 overdoses seen in June 2020 three months into the pandemic.
Penobscot County saw eight drug overdose deaths in January, making up 14 percent of the total across the state. Over the past year, Penobscot County has accounted for 19 percent of the state’s overdose deaths despite its 11 percent share of the population.
Only Androscoggin County had a higher overdose death rate than Penobscot County last month. That county also recorded eight drug overdose deaths, but has a smaller population than Penobscot.
Cumberland County had the highest number of total overdose deaths with 12, making up 21 percent of drug overdose deaths across Maine, which is close to its 22 percent share of the Maine population.
Sixty-two percent of all people who fatally overdosed were male and 52 percent were aged 40-59. Thirty-four percent were 18-39 and 14 percent were over 60. Just one of the deaths was ruled a suicide.
Thursday’s report marked the first time the state reported monthly overdose death numbers, with information reported within weeks of the month’s end. The report, funded by the Maine Attorney General’s office and the state Office of Behavioral Health, also noted that naloxone was administered in more than a fifth of the cases that resulted in fatal overdoses.
Marcella Sorg of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, the report’s author, noted that monthly fluctuations are to be expected.