Drug overdoses in Portland climb at year-end

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Portland emergency responders were called to nearly 500 overdoses in 2021, and Cumberland County had nearly 100 deaths, according to a preliminary report compiled for a City Council committee.

The statistics were slated to be presented to the council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. A more complete report, the Expanded Death Report for 2021, with statistics compiled by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and the state medical examiner’s office, is expected in April.

PFD patchThe policy center reported there were 92 overdose deaths in Cumberland County and 515 overall in Maine through last October, although the October numbers – 13 in Cumberland County and 60 in Maine – are subject to change based on final determinations by the medical examiner.

The Portland Fire Department responded to 465 overdoses in 2021, 200 of which were related to opioids, according to the report provided to city councilors.

Of the 465 overdoses, 172 cases were considered “opioid with coma,” which means the victim was unconscious at the time EMS responded. Another 89 were considered opioid without coma, which means they were responsive at the time of EMS arrival, though that does include cases where naloxone was administered by police or a bystander before EMS arrived.

Portland had 56 overdose fatalities in all of 2020, and 45 – or 81 percent – were caused by opioids.

The report comes about a week after the Portland Police Department announced it had responded to an “alarming” number of overdoses since just before Christmas.

According to a Jan. 3 press release, police responded to two fatal overdoses and 21 nonfatal overdoses since Dec. 24. Narcan was administered in 14 of those 21 cases. During that same period in 2020, just nine nonfatal overdoses and no fatalities were reported – an increase of 133 percent last year.

As a result, police and Portland Public Health officials urged residents to be aware of access to Narcan and other harm-reduction strategies. Narcan is available at pharmacies without a prescription, and the city offers no-cost training for Narcan, and overdose recognition and response.

Police say if you encounter someone who has overdosed you should call 911 and stay with that person until emergency responders arrive.

According to the report to councilors, police responded to 322 overdoses in 2021, a 9.5 percent increase from 2020, but a 10 percent decline from 2019 and a 26 percent drop from 2017, which was the highest year on record.

The report notes, however, that in the first half of 2021 a large percentage of people experiencing homelessness and those affected by mental illness and substance use disorder were placed in hotels in South Portland. When those temporary shelters were no longer available and they started returning to Portland, the city saw an increase in overdoses in the fall and winter.

Of the overdoses that police responded to last year, 23 were fatal, which is a 36 percent decline from 2020 and a 58 percent decline from 2019. Officers administered Narcan 77 times in 2021, a 67 percent increase from 2020.

Of the 322 overdoses, 27 were non-opioid related. Intentional overdoses using prescription drugs accounted for 63 percent of non-opioid-related incidents, followed by 19 percent due to the use of methamphetamine.

Last year the city’s Syringe Services Program, often called the Needle Exchange, distributed just over 4,600 doses of nasal Narcan to clients. It was a historic year for the exchange, with collection and disposal of more than 384,000 syringes and distribution of more than 435,000 to people who use drugs.

The exchange served nearly 1,400 clients with nearly 6,500 exchanges.