As the coronavirus continues to claim lives of Marylanders every day, state officials are saying it’s also contributing to an increase in fatal drug overdoses and alcohol-related deaths throughout the region.
New state data released Tuesday revealed a 9.1% increase across the state in drug- and alcohol-related deaths from January to June of this year compared with the same time frame in 2019, with opioids being responsible for nearly 90% of the 1,326 deaths. With the release of state data delayed by months, the report showed the impact of the pandemic for the first time.
The Opioid Operational Command Center and the Maryland Department of Health said it’s “clear” that COVID-19 is responsible for the uptick, as it has required people to quarantine and remain inside their homes to help curb the virus.
“Taken together, the associated social isolation, disruptions of support, impeded access to care, and economic distress have helped to create an extremely dangerous environment for those suffering from substance use disorder,” the report said.
The report also noted an increase of alcohol- and cocaine-related deaths and a decrease in emergency room visits for nonfatal opioid overdoses, though the latter may be a result of the pandemic.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said the state, much like the rest of the country, has faced “daunting” challenges since the beginning of the year but that officials have acted “quickly” and “proactively.” He touted the creation of the Maryland COVID-19 Inter-Agency Overdose Action Plan to help the link between substance abuse and the pandemic.
“From the beginning of my administration, I have offered the full support of my office and the resources of every agency in the state to solve this problem, and this plan provides the framework for us to do that right now,” the Republican governor said in a news release. "In spite of the other challenges that we face, our dedication to reversing the devastation of the opioid crisis has not waivered.”
Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has replaced much of the street heroin, accounts for most of the opioid deaths. There were 1,100 fentanyl deaths, an increase of 11.9% compared with last year, the report said. Fentanyl contributed to 83% of the intoxication-related deaths.
Health officials have spent millions of federal and state dollars to bring down opioid-related overdoses, which have claimed more than 2,000 Marylanders in each of the past three years. They widely distributed the overdose antidote naloxone and trained people to use it. They set up hotlines and sought funding for more treatment. Baltimore City opened a sobering center to divert people from emergency department and jails.
Dr. Michael Fingerhood, who treats substance use disorders at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, said the increase doesn’t come as a surprise because so many people were unable to receive or seek treatment during the beginning months of Hogan’s stay-home-order that was enacted March 30. Fingerhood also said that nearly all in-person substance abuse meetings were canceled and that it was difficult to reach new patients who may have been trying to seek help because of limited appointments.
“A lot of 12-step meetings were places for people to walk in and say they need help,” Fingerhood said. “And most patients who need them don’t have the ability to get to a Zoom 12-step meeting.”
The associate professor of medicine and public health at the Johns Hopkins University also said that although the increase was expected, he finds the increase of suburban-area opioid deaths “troubling.”
Opioid-related overdose deaths increased in 17 jurisdictions, with Prince George’s County adding 50 deaths compared with 2019 and Cecil County adding 19.
Anne Arundel reported an 8.6% increase to 101 deaths, Baltimore County rose by 2.9% to 176 and Howard County went up 85% increase to 26. Harford County dropped by 13.2% to 33and Carroll County fell by 16.7% to 20.
Baltimore City, which has long had the most fatalities in the state, had 427 deaths, which is 35 fewer than last year and accounts for a 7.6% drop.
The state also said alcohol-related deaths jumped nearly 35% to 287 compared with the first half of 2019. Cocaine-related intoxication deaths also increased by 13.3%, with 486 deaths compared with the same period last year.
The increase of deaths with non-opioid substances is “indicative of increases in substance misuse more generally and its exacerbation by the despair caused by the coronavirus pandemic,” the report said.
Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communications for Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore, said the organization’s help hotline has seen an increase of more than 500%.
Breidenstine said now that providers can use telehealth to help patients, it’s easier to make sure people have the proper medication, including naloxone.
But despite the fact that COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to loosen, Breidenstine was careful to warn that opioid numbers might not decrease.
“I’d like to see it continue to decline, but given the pandemic and the crisis that it’s creating, I’m not sure we’re going to see that in the long term,” she said. “As we see more unemployment, we’re likely to see an increase in opioid addiction and mental health crises.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.
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