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Federal officials and Baltimore leaders tout broader approach to reducing opioid overdose deaths

Federal officials announced in Baltimore they will invest more in harm-reduction strategies to reduce drug-related deaths after Maryland and the United States saw record-breaking numbers of fatal overdoses last year.

It’s part of a national effort to tackle the growing problem, and brought senior Biden administration officials and Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott on Wednesday to the Health Care for the Homeless building in Penns-Fallsway.

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Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra came Wednesday to Baltimore and pledged to invest millions in funding and promote harm-reduction strategies in an attempt to tackle the growing issue of opioid overdose deaths nationwide.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra came Wednesday to Baltimore and pledged to invest millions in funding and promote harm-reduction strategies in an attempt to tackle the growing issue of opioid overdose deaths nationwide. (Phil Davis)

The plan allows municipalities like Baltimore, which saw the most overdose deaths of any Maryland municipality in 2020 with 1,028, to use federal funding to purchase fentanyl test strips and allocates about $30 million toward overdose prevention programs and initiatives.

The effort comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does not include alcohol related deaths in its calculation, reported that more than 93,000 people nationally died from drug overdoses in 2020, the highest number on record. The vast majority of deaths were attributed to opioids and fentanyl, a synthetic that officials say is magnitudes more potent than heroin.

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Maryland also suffered its worst year on record as 2,773 people died of drug and alcohol overdoses in 2020, the highest number ever recorded.

Xavier Becerra, the secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the new strategy “changes course” from decades of a law enforcement-centric approach by removing barriers to various harm-reduction programs and products such as the fentanyl tests strips. The strips are used to see if drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, have been laced with fentanyl.

“We want to address the full spectrum of drug use and addiction that can result in overdose and perhaps death,” Becerra said. “Our strategy seeks to eliminate barriers and advance equity and reflects the administration’s commitment to putting the very individuals who have struggled with addiction in positions of power.”

In addition, the plan calls for funding clean needle exchange programs and for expanded access to naloxone, the drug that halts the symptoms of an opioid overdose and is currently in short supply. Earlier this year, Pfizer announced it would halt production of its injectable version of the drug due to a manufacturing issue.

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Scott reiterated his belief that opioid addiction, which state health officials say killed 485 people in Baltimore from January through June of this year, is a public health crisis and needs to be treated as such.

“The opioid epidemic is unprecedented and our response has to be unprecedented,” he said.

Officials in Baltimore and across Maryland have sounded the alarm that the ongoing addiction crisis was made worse by the isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts are becoming worried about new trends in 2021 as state officials say there was an increase in prescription opioid-related overdose deaths, as well as a disproportionate increase in Black overdose deaths compared to other demographics. As of June, 57 more Black people in Maryland have died due to opioid-related overdoses than during the same time in 2020, while overdose deaths were down among white and Hispanic populations, according to state health officials.

Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, the administrator of the HHS-affiliated Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said the plan will also target “historically under-resourced populations, including African-Americans, who experienced substantial increases in overdose rates and far higher barriers to care.”

The federal plan does not recommend or allow overdose prevention sites — places where people can use drugs in a medically supervised environment. The controversial idea has gained steam nationally with some supporters pointing to their success in places like Australia and Vancouver in reducing fatal overdoses.

Scott and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, also a Democrat, have voiced their support for the idea.

Gene Ransom, CEO of MedChi, the statewide association for licensed physicians, applauded the strategy but said he still wants to see more federal support for treatment facilities and more investment in primary care.

Some of what was discussed Wednesday might seem familiar to Baltimore residents. The city runs a clean needle exchange program and naloxone can be bought at a pharmacy without a prescription.

Ransom said that, while he’s glad to see those initiatives pushed on a national level, he still wants to see the federal government tackle opioid addiction with a “holistic approach” covering everything from primary care doctors to treatment providers.

He said he wants more investment in the primary care field so that physicians can better address the early signs of addiction when patients come in for appointments, adding that around 40% of Maryland residents don’t have a primary care doctor.

He also wants to see insurers be required to cover nonopioid painkiller treatments. A 2017 study of health insurance plans by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that “some insurance plans have missed important opportunities to steer patients towards safer and more effective treatments than prescription opioids” for back pain such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications.

“While it’s a positive step and we certainly appreciate the investment, we can certainly do more,” Ransom said.

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