Paper lanterns adorned with messages memorialize those killed by overdoses at a vigil in Portland in 2017. Last year, 502 Mainers died from overdoses. Credit: Bangor Daily News / BDN

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Much attention in the last year has rightly focused on the growing death toll from COVID-19. Yet, in Maine and across the country, another epidemic continues to end hundreds of lives far too soon.

There were 502 deaths from overdoses in Maine in 2020. That is the most since the state began tracking this data in 1997 and a significant increase over the 380 overdose deaths recorded in 2019. Another 58 Mainers are believed to have died from overdoses in January, making it the deadliest substance use-related month on record, according to a report released earlier this month by the Attorney General’s Office.

Nationwide, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 81,000 drug overdose deaths from June 2019 through May 2020, the largest number recorded in the U.S. over a 12-month period.

In Maine, 677 people have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic first hit the state in March. The pandemic, caused by a new virus, has appropriately been the focus of intense efforts to prevent infections to slow the spread of the disease.

Intense focus should also be directed at substance use disorder, which annually claims far too many lives.

Many efforts, including law changes to make treatment more readily accessible during the pandemic, are already underway. But, the newly released numbers add urgency — and the need for a long-term commitment — to this work.

The ongoing pandemic made it much more difficult for many people with substance use disorder to access treatment, which includes medication-assisted treatment and counseling.

At the same time, however, it also allowed some innovations — such as easier availability of some medications, relaxed requirements for needle exchanges and virtual counseling — which may have prevented overdose deaths from being even higher.

Although the numbers released last week are “horrible,” Gordon Smith, the state’s director of opioid response, told the BDN he believes that Maine is poised to do a much better job of addressing substance use disorders when the pandemic, and accompanying requirements for social distancing and limits on indoor gatherings, end.

We cautiously support Smith’s optimism but remain concerned about the long-term trend of a rising death toll attributed to overdoses.

Dr. Noah Nesin, the chief medical officer at Penobscot County Health Care, shares Smith’s optimism, and concerns.

Although he notes that overdose deaths were already increasing before the pandemic, he said that recent preventative measures, such as ongoing work to expand treatment options, helped to keep last year’s overdose death numbers from being even worse. At the same time, however, the pandemic has made it harder for many currently in treatment to stay connected to peer supports and for treatment providers to enforce needed accountability measures, such as pill counts and drug screenings, Nesin told the BDN.

But, like Smith, Nesin is hopeful that new and expanded efforts will help to address the state’s opioid crisis. One promising avenue is the growth of “bridge” programs that bring together a small team of professionals to help those in recovery access a variety of services and supports. A new program in Bangor, for example, will work to connect those who have recently survived an overdose with harm reduction materials such as clean needles and overdose-reversing medication along with housing and health care and resources.

PCHC has received federal grant funding to expand its bridge programs, which connect those in recovery with child care, transportation, public health nursing in addition to expanding treatment opportunities and community support.

Although Maine’s opioid crisis has been worsening for years, broader public understanding is still needed, Smith said. That’s why the state is collecting more data and releasing it more frequently, said. For example, reports on overdose deaths will be released each month, which should allow policymakers to respond more quickly to trends in the data. Previously, overdose numbers were reported to the public twice a year.

“We need people to know how bad it is,” Smith said.

More than 500 deaths in a year should surely get people’s attention. That knowledge should translate into growing support for the mix of programs and services — and the accompanying funding — needed to reduce Maine’s deadly overdose epidemic.

The BDN Editorial Board

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...