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Olszewski announces effort to battle opioid crisis in Baltimore County

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is asking a group of medical leaders to develop strategies the county can use to combat the ongoing opioid crisis.

The group will analyze public input and draft health recommendations to the county for treating addiction and reducing overdoses, Olszewski announced Thursday.

“By any measure, this is truly a crisis,” he said, adding that 348 people in Baltimore County died of overdoses in 2018, the second-highest in the state. “It affects every community, across our nation, across our county, every neighborhood, and we have a moral imperative to do all that we can to fight back and respond to it.”

The working group is tasked with developing a “set of actionable steps” to address the crisis, Olszewski said.

On Thursday, Maryland joined four other states in filing charges against the owners and former directors of Purdue Pharma, maker of the opioid OxyContin, for their role in the epidemic.

Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is a key adviser to the group.

Sharfstein, who has written a book on the opioid epidemic, said he sees three critical steps in addressing opioids: recognizing there is a problem, “drawing on the strength of a community” and using evidence to develop a “focused strategy.” Sharfstein said the working group shows the county is “trying to move quickly and decisively.”

The work group expects to take public comment for six weeks, with public meetings in June and July, then present final recommendations by September, Sharfstein said.

An online survey is available in English and Spanish. Public meetings are scheduled for June 18 and July 10.

The working group members are: Dr. John Chessare, president and CEO of Greater Baltimore Medical Center; Dr. Michelle Gourdine, interim chief medical officer and senior vice president at the University of Maryland Medical System; Dr. Sunil Khushalani, medical director of adult services at Sheppard Pratt Health System; Dawn O’Neill, vice president of population health at Saint Agnes Hospital; Michelle Spencer, associate director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Dr. Christopher Welsh, medical director of outpatient addiction treatment services at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Toni Torsch, who founded the Daniel Carl Torsch Foundation to combat addiction after her son died of an accidental overdose at 24, said the working group is an “encouraging sign that the county is moving forward, and moving forward quickly.” She said the county has reacted too slowly to the crisis in the past.

Dr. Gregory Branch, director of the county health department, said he believes criticism that the county has moved slowly is unfounded. He said the county provides comparable services to other jurisdictions — but to avoid public “not in my neighborhood” criticism, those services are often provided quietly.

Branch said he sees the work group as a way to bring the conversation around already existing programs to the public.

Asked whether the county has moved too slowly, Olszewski said “I think there’s always more you can do.” He pointed to an inpatient treatment facility, the first in the county, scheduled to open in July, as progress.

In addition to the work group, Olszewski has asked the County Council to approve funding for an opioid strategy coordinator in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

Councilman Julian Jones, who was at the press conference, said he supports the addition and thinks the chances of it passing are good, despite the challenges of adding new positions while also asking the public to pay more in taxes.

Jones said he thinks Branch at the health department has been doing “great work” but given the extent of the crisis, now there is an opportunity to get more experts involved, he thinks the county should do so.

“I don’t think this is the time to hold back,” Jones said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

asolomon@baltsun.com

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