Paper lanterns adorned with messages memorialize those killed by overdoses at a vigil in Portland in 2017. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The number of overdose deaths in July topped 50 for the second month in a row with 25 percent of those deaths reported in Penobscot County.

Fifty-two people died from either confirmed or suspected drug overdoses last month, according to the state’s monthly overdose report. That is seven fewer than reported in June, but the figure continues to put Maine on track for the deadliest year yet in the yearslong opioid epidemic.

Some 360 Mainers died of drug overdoses this year through the end of July, according to the report published by the Maine attorney general’s office. That puts the average monthly number of deaths at 51.

Maine averaged 43.6 overdose deaths through the first seven months of 2020, which turned out to be the deadliest year on record with 502 people dying of overdoses.

Drug deaths have accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted daily life, separated people from family and friends, put many people out of work and forced many in recovery from addiction to find new ways to receive support.

The overdose death figures to date this year show that the trend has only worsened.

Thirteen people in Penobscot County died from overdoses in July, followed by eight in York County, seven in Kennebec and six in Cumberland. Last week, a new text alert system set up by the state warned for the first time of a spike in overdose deaths in Penobscot County.

Penobscot County’s share of drug overdose deaths last month was more than double its share of the state population — 25 percent of overdose deaths, compared with 11 percent of Maine’s population. The county has represented a larger share of overdose deaths than its share of the population for years now.

The number of people who survived a suspected overdose has also risen during the course of the year. There 835 nonfatal overdoses reported in July, up from 821 in June and 578 in May.

Just one of the 52 deaths in July was determined to be a suicide, while the rest were found to be accidental overdoses.

Thirty of the 52 people who died were male, and the vast majority — 47 — were between the ages of 18 and 59. Five who died of overdoses were over the age of 60, and no one under the age of 18 died of an overdose in July. So far, this year two children have died of overdoses.

Again this year, fentanyl is nearly always found in combination with multiple other drugs in fatal overdoses. Xylazine, a muscle relaxant and sedative, and nonpharmaceutical tramadol, a pain killer, were identified as co-intoxicants with fentanyl for the first time in 2021.

Heroin was reported as a cause in 6 percent of 2021 deaths, down from 11 percent last year. Methamphetamine was cited as a cause of death in 25 percent of the overdoses, slightly more than in 2020.

Fentanyl is often cut into doses of heroin, but is 100 times more potent.

Cocaine-involved fatalities from January to July accounted for 22 percent of cases, slightly less than the 23 percent in 2020.

Fentanyl was found in combination with cocaine or methamphetamine in 19 percent each of the 2021 cases.