This July 3, 2018 file photo shows a Narcan nasal device which delivers naloxone in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Credit: Mary Altaffer / AP

A text alert issued Thursday morning that was among the first of its kind warned that there had been a spike in drug overdoses in Penobscot County over the past 24 hours.

The alert from the state’s SPIKE Auto Text Program came as overdose deaths in Maine have continued to climb throughout the pandemic.

Sixty people died of confirmed or suspected drug overdoses in June, the highest number in a single month in 2021, according to statistics compiled by the Maine Attorney General’s office. In the first half of the year, 310 people died of drug overdoses, a 21 percent increase over the first half of 2020. Forty people died of overdoses in May.

The numbers put 2021 on track to be the deadliest year to date of the opioid epidemic. So far, 2020 is the deadliest year for opioid overdoses on record.

The text alert system is part of a program implemented by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in June to connect people with resources that can save lives, support those struggling with substance use, and promote recovery during a rise in overdoses.

The alert was triggered because there were three drug overdoses in Penobscot County over the previous 24 hours, Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said Thursday. Location information and whether any of the overdoses was fatal was not released.

So far this year in Penobscot County, there have been 53 confirmed or suspected fatal overdoses, compared with 50 in the first six months of 2020.

The text alert program is part of Maine’s OPTIONS initiative, which has placed mobile response teams in each Maine county to engage with communities with high rates of drug overdoses. The initiative promotes harm reduction strategies, connects people directly to recovery services and treatment and distributes naloxone, the lifesaving overdose medication.

Since the program was launched two months ago, liaisons with OPTIONS have referred 155 people to community-based addiction treatment, 162 to recovery support services, 76 to syringe exchange programs and 50 to testing sites for HIV and Hepatitis C.

In addition, liaisons have helped people complete 28 applications for MaineCare, distributed 262 naloxone kits, responded to 275 substance use disorder-related emergency calls and conducted 220 post-overdose followup interviews, according to Farwell.

Maine has now averaged more than 50 overdose deaths a month in the first half of 2021.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl continued to be responsible for the vast majority of those fatalities that have been confirmed as overdose deaths, according to reports.

As of June 30, 3,759 non-fatal overdoses were reported to the attorney general’s office by law enforcement agencies, first responders, emergency rooms, and individuals and groups receiving state-distributed naloxone.

To sign up for the overdose alert system, text SPIKE to 855-963-5669 and follow the prompts.