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A record number of fatal overdoses ravaged Maryland in 2020, ‘exacerbated’ by COVID pandemic, report shows

More than 2,700 people in Maryland died from drug and alcohol overdoses last year, the most ever recorded in a single year as fatalities jumped during the heart of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new state report.

A report released Tuesday by Maryland’s Opioid Operational Command Center shows that 2,773 people died to drug and alcohol overdoses, 394 more than in 2019 and 376 more than the previous record set in 2018, when 2,406 people died from overdoses.

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The overwhelming majority of deaths — 2,499 — came from opioid-related overdoses. The bulk of those overdoses were attributed to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is much more potent than heroin. According to the state, 2,326 people died in 2020 from fentanyl-related overdoses, about 83.9% of all reported overdoses.

The report shows that the state saw a significant jump in overdose deaths after the pandemic hit Maryland in March 2020, forcing officials to enact restrictions on social gatherings and businesses.

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From April through December, the state reported a 20.8% increase in overdose deaths compared to the same period in 2019.

The state previously had reported increases in overdose deaths through the first three quarters of 2020, which continued during the fourth quarter as well. According to health officials, 698 people died from drug and alcohol overdoses from October through December, an increase of about 21.8% compared to the same months of 2019.

The coronavirus pandemic “has exacerbated the rate of fatal overdoses around the country,” said Steve Schuh, executive director of the state’s opioid command center, in a statement.

“While the full extent to which COVID-19 has contributed to the increase in substance misuse and related deaths of despair may not be known until further research can be done, we know that vulnerable populations, such as people with substance use disorder, are bearing the brunt of the associated societal disruptions,” Schuh said.

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Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order that removed barriers for private health providers to deliver more health care services over the phone or via videoconference in an attempt to tackle some of the issues unique to the pandemic.

However, Maryland was one of 41 states the American Medical Association said needed to do more to address a rise in opioid-related overdoses, calling on state leadership to remove quantity restrictions on opioid prescriptions and implement harm reduction tactics, such as offering clean needle exchange programs.

State officials wrote that Baltimore, located along a major corridor for heroin and fentanyl in the Northeast, experienced the most opioid-related overdose deaths with 954 fatalities, a 12.1% increase over the 851 recorded in 2019.

Rural counties in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore saw the largest proportional increases year-over-year.

According to the state, opioid-related fatalities in Allegany County more than doubled this year to 48 from 23 in 2019. Worcester County, home to Ocean City, saw opioid-related deaths increase 71.4% to 24 deaths in 2020 from 14 the year before.

Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communications at Behavioral Health System Baltimore, said the state “should be doing more of what we already know works,” adding that agencies should be aggressive distributing naloxone, the lifesaving opioid antidote, into the hands of known substance users.

She also criticized the General Assembly for not passing legislation that would have allowed for Overdose Prevention Sites, also known as safe injection sites where people can use their already obtained drugs inside a safe environment that provides clean needles and immediate medical treatment alongside referrals to available treatment options. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby also has voiced her support for the idea.

“We know from looking at other countries that this works and this is an access point to care,” Mosby said.

Gene Ransom, the leader of MedChi, an association of Maryland doctors, said the latest statistics should serve as a wake-up call to state officials that the opioid crisis did not halt during the pandemic and remains a pressing issue for the state to address.

“I think we really need to put the same level of focus on the opioid crisis as we did to COVID,” Ransom said. “This is a crisis. These numbers are growing at a very high clip.”

He said he’s worried that the state could continue to see an increase into 2021 because, addiction treatment centers have operated at reduced capacity during the pandemic and may need to continue to do so to meet quarantine and distancing requirements.

“It’s a shame because it really felt like we were heading in a better direction and it’s almost like COVID resulted in us taking three steps back,” Ransom said.

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