It’s Year Five of the plague, and here’s what we know: The death toll is mounting so fast that it would be foolish for anyone to believe that it couldn’t touch them.

The opioid epidemic kills more Mainers per year than murder or suicide. It’s more deadly than car crashes, drownings, hypertension, breast cancer or diabetes.

Since 2012 there have been double-digit increases in the number of deaths each year, culminating in a nearly 40-percent increase last year, with Mainers dying at a rate greater than one per day.

“Lost,” a 10-part series that began March 26 in Portland Press Herald newspapers, tells part of the story behind those cold numbers. The series profiles 60 of the people who have died, just a fraction of the lives lost in the past few years, but a broad enough sample to show how deeply the sickness has sunk its roots.

Some of these stories will fit the stereotype that many of us believe about drug abusers — that they are young thrill-seekers who got in over their heads. But many will not.

You’ll see that their road to addiction was as likely to begin with an innocent prescription for painkillers as a crazy night of partying. Most people can walk away after that first taste, but because of genetics or psychology, for others it’s a lifelong struggle.

And like the biblical plague that “struck down all … in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon,” opioid overdose deaths are creeping across our state, killing without regard to social class or station.

It kills teachers as well as students, mothers as well as children, those who helped others as well as those who desperately needed help themselves.

And it strikes not just the ones who are unloved and forgotten, but also those who are cherished, needed and mourned.

What else have we learned in these last four years?

We need government to take the lead.

Gov. Paul LePage came to office believing that he knew more than the experts. Along with Commissioner Mary Mayhew of the Department of Health and Human Services, LePage cut the Medicaid rolls, claiming that “toxic charity” was making poor Mainers dependent.

The numbers show that just as the opioid crisis was getting worse in 2012 and 2013, LePage’s ideological opposition to government-financed health care was making treatment harder to get.

Instead of getting help, drug-dependent Mainers moved from pharmaceutical opioids to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, creating a market for out-of-state gangs.

LePage and Mayhew capped Medicaid coverage for methadone — the single most effective treatment for the most addicted people. The governor tried to prevent the expanded circulation of naloxone, the overdose antidote drug, claiming that it “merely extends” lives and doesn’t save them. In his State of the State address this year, LePage resigned himself to his belief that this crisis would not end until “this generation dies.”

The state has finally started to increase funding for medication-assisted treatment, a step in the right direction, but too late for so many.

In one sense, this public health crisis resembles another plague that struck America a generation ago: HIV/AIDS. Then, too, government was slow to respond because it was believed that the disease was isolated in marginalized groups: the gay community and intravenous drug users. Just as they say about opioid addicts today, leaders claimed that people infected with HIV had brought the sickness on themselves through bad judgment and immoral acts.

But we know that no one is perfect, and that the people who died were not so different from those who lived. And we know that many lives were lost because we waited too long to act.

Twenty-five years ago, AIDS activist Bob Rafsky stood before an open coffin at a funeral and railed at the cruel indifference to suffering and death that was being exhibited by people who had the power to make it stop.

He cried out in frustration: “When the living can no longer speak, the dead may speak for them.”

It’s Year Five of this plague, and the dead are speaking. It’s time we listen.


Read the Press Herald series here.