Public health officials are finally delivering some hopeful news about the coronavirus pandemic in Maine, which has taken 654 lives.

The weekly average of number of new cases has dropped to the lowest level since the winter surge started in November, and highly effective vaccines, while still in short supply, are finding their way to a growing number of the state’s residents.

Unfortunately, the state’s other public health emergency – the drug overdose crisis – gives us less reason for hope.

2020 turned out to be Maine’s worst year ever, with overdoses claiming 502 lives. And the first month of this year puts us on pace for more tragic losses, with 58 overdose deaths in January.

That ought to be ringing alarm bells all across Maine. We need the same kind of public health mobilization that we have used to fight COVID-19 if we want to stop people from dying needlessly.

There is no vaccine against substance use disorder, but there are things that we should have learned from fighting COVID that will help us now.

One is understanding that government can’t do it all. State and local agencies play a big role in distributing the overdose antidote naloxone, and funding inpatient and outpatient treatment, especially programs that employ medication-assisted treatment, the “gold standard,” which allows people in recovery to avoid relapse. But there has to be a communitywide commitment to understanding the disease.

Just as most Mainers learned how to observe safe distances and wear masks in public, people who interact with people who use drugs need to be supplied with and trained to administer naloxone. They also need to be fully educated about the state’s Good Samaritan laws, which protect people from legal consequences when they report a drug-related emergency.

And timely, accurate information is crucial to formulating a response. Frequent updates about the instances of new COVID infections and deaths and where they occurred have informed our behavior and made us smarter about risk. So it’s good news that the Maine Attorney General’s Office has started publishing overdose data every month instead of quarterly. The first monthly report was released Thursday, and it presents the latest numbers in context with the previous year’s, giving a fuller understanding of what’s driving the increase in deaths.

Just as fatalities from the coronavirus reveal only part of the virus’ impact, the overdose death numbers tell only part of the story. The overdose deaths represent a fraction of the people who are actively using drugs and face a wide variety of serious health problems in addition to overdose. People in recovery also may have lifelong consequences that result from their drug use. We can’t expect the death toll to decrease without paying attention to the community of active and former users.

The two public health emergencies, COVID and overdose deaths,  have been linked in other ways. The physical isolation that comes from avoiding gatherings where the coronavirus could spread may be adding to a sense of psychological isolation, increasing the urge to use drugs while inhibiting people’s ability to get support to stay away from them.

We are hopeful that the combination of the vaccines and good public health practices will enable us to turn the corner on COVID this year. It will take a similar-sized commitment if we are going to say the same about overdoses.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.