COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in Maine in 2021, trailing only cancer and heart disease, and it has had a range of secondary impacts on the health of Mainers, according to a new report released by health officials Wednesday.
The 2022 Maine Shared Community Health Needs Assessment, which includes detailed breakdowns for each county and for a variety of population groups, also highlights concerns about mental health, access to health care, a shortage of mental health providers and rising rates of substance use.
The assessment, conducted every three years, shows how the pandemic has impacted health systems and individuals, including historically disadvantaged populations, such as Black people, immigrants, people who identify as LGBTQ and people who are homeless.
“While our quantitative data pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 community health needs assessment outreach took place during the pandemic, and participants noted its impacts in deep and meaningful ways,” the report states. “It was impossible not to recognize the pandemic’s impacts on healthcare, health outcomes, behavioral health, and social support systems, especially for those who experience systemic disadvantages.”
Over the last two years, COVID-19 has surpassed unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease and strokes to become the third leading cause of death here. Only cancer and heart disease kill more Mainers.
COVID-19 also was the third leading cause of death in the United States between March 2020 and October 2021, according to an analysis of national death certificate data by researchers at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. As in Maine, heart disease was the number one cause of death, followed by cancer. Accidents and strokes were the fourth and fifth leading causes of death nationwide.
Mental health care was identified as a top priority by providers in all 16 Maine counties and through surveys at community-sponsored events that informed the report. A lack of access to mental health services and the increased stress caused by the pandemic among young people were areas of top concern.
The report notes widespread “concern that the current health care workforce cannot meet mental health needs,” which is increasing visits to emergency departments at hospitals.
“Community members were concerned that the pandemic exacerbated mental health issues across the state, leading to increased isolation, trauma, and stress,” the report states. “Those with a mental health diagnosis noted extremely long waitlists for services, highlighting a need for more high-quality mental health services.”
Drug and alcohol use, which can exacerbate other mental and physical health problems, was another top concern identified in the report. Maine’s rate of fatal overdoses in 2021 was nearly 75 percent higher than the national average, with 37.2 people per 100,000 residents in Maine experiencing a fatal overdose, compared to 21.5 per 100,000 nationally.
“Participants also perceived an overall lack of preventive services and treatment options across the state, such as psychiatrists, counselors/social workers, and harm reduction and prevention outreach,” the report states. “However, there was an acknowledgment from participants that recent efforts to support individuals with substance use issues have been working and have had a real impact on their communities.”
The Maine Shared Community Health Needs Assessment is a collaboration between the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Central Maine Healthcare, MaineGeneral Health, MaineHealth, and Northern Light Health.