In this Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu addresses a gathering in Manchester, New Hampshire. Credit: Charles Krupa / AP

SALEM, New Hampshire — Drug overdose deaths in New Hampshire are holding steady, but it’s too soon to celebrate the state’s relative success, Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday.

Overdose deaths increased in every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota in 2020, according to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics. The state medical examiner’s most recent data show 416 confirmed and two possible deaths in 2020, compared with 415 the previous year. So far this year, there have been 214 confirmed or possible deaths, which is slightly lower than the year-to-date total in July 2020 but slightly higher than the July 2019 total.

Sununu highlighted the statistics at a news conference after he toured the Granite Recovery Center in Salem, a 400-bed facility that offers detox, residential and outpatient services to those fighting substance use disorders.

“We all assumed our numbers would fly through the roof in 2020 and amazingly, New Hampshire’s didn’t,” he said. “But as good as this news is, this kinda scares me a little bit. We haven’t won this. We’ve got so long to go.”

Once among the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, New Hampshire spent millions in federal funds in 2019 to create a hub-and-spoke model called “The Doorway” in which hospitals and others work with local providers to ensure that help is less than an hour away anywhere in the state. That has been “an incredibly effective entry point,” said Patrick Tufts, CEO of Granite United Way and head of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment. But the state also needs to focus on prevention and providing help with transportation, child care and jobs for those in recovery, he said.

“What we’re learning, and what we need to continue to work on is, what’s next?” he said. “Addiction is a lifelong battle, it’s a lifelong crisis for individuals and families. It’s not over in 28 days.”

Sununu said a main takeaway from his conversations with Granite Recovery clients was the need to better integrate mental health care with addiction treatment. The state recently responded to a court order with a $100 million investment in emergency beds at hospitals, transitional housing beds, new mobile crisis teams and other services. While hiring and retaining workers remains a challenge, he said the pieces are coming together.

“The core of the issue hasn’t changed,” he said. “The opposite of addiction is connectivity, and that’s what we really need to provide, connectivity to the community, connectivity to self-worth, connectivity to others that are going through a lot of the same things and breaking down those stigmas.”

The state’s largest cities, Manchester and Nashua, have seen an uptick in drug overdoses in recent months as the coronavirus pandemic eased up. Sununu compared both the mental health and drug crises to a race car stuck in park with the driver’s foot on the gas.

“That didn’t mean we were getting better, it meant it was all just getting bottled up,” he said. “Once things really opened up, it was like throwing everything into drive at once.”

Story by Holly Ramer.