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Carroll County drug overdoses down slightly from 2019, but data may be affected by coronavirus pandemic

Halfway through 2020, the number of drug overdoses in Carroll County has declined slightly compared to the year before, but a local health official cautions that it remains to be seen how the COVID-19 pandemic might have affected the statistics.

In 2020, there have been 187 overdoses, 24 of them fatal, in Carroll County as of July 1, according to data provided by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. During the same period in 2019 there were 194 overdoses and 23 fatalities.

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Overdoses in May 2020 numbered 46, then dropped to 28 in June, the data shows. May 2020 marked the highest number of overdoses in that month over the past five years, whereas June 2020 had the lowest number for that month in five years.

There were 25 overdoses in April 2020 and 30 in March 2020 — when the pandemic arrived in Carroll County. Twenty-five overdoses is fairly low for April compared with recent years; there were 29 the year before and 52 in 2018. And 30 is on the low side for March; 40 overdoses were counted in March 2019, 66 in March 2018, 69 in March 2017, and 27 in March 2016.

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Sue Doyle, local behavioral health authority at the Carroll County Health Department, isn’t celebrating the declining numbers yet.

“My personal opinion is they may be skewed because of COVID[-19],” she said Thursday.

Doyle said that two months ago she thought they’d dodged a bullet. Deaths were relatively low, then suddenly, they received reports of about 11 fatalities within a week. She said that reporting was backed up due to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Between March and May, Doyle said, her office heard very little about overdoses.

“It was a two-month period of time where we generally weren’t hearing anything about overdoses at all,” she said, but people were still calling to refill Narcan, an overdose reversal drug also known as naloxone, so she knew the need was there.

Then one day in May the county experienced about 12 overdoses, Doyle said. An overdose alert was issued for the county May 14.

Doyle has a few hypothesis about why numbers have been lower during the pandemic compared to the previous year (with the exception of May). Maybe people who overdosed were afraid to go to the hospital or call for help because they were afraid of being around others and contracting COVID-19, she suggested. Overdoses could also be down because of how widely distributed Narcan has become, Doyle said, or perhaps people stayed in their homes due to the pandemic and couldn’t get drugs like they would normally.

She’s not sure whether there have been fewer overdoses or less reporting of overdoses. But Doyle said she’s “cautiously optimistic” for now.

Adapting to the times

While the Carroll County Health Department has had to largely focus on the pandemic, it couldn’t stop fighting the opioid epidemic.

“We were dealing with an epidemic during a pandemic,” Doyle said.

The health department partnered with community providers such as Human Services Programs of Carroll County and the Department of Citizen Services to ensure provisions were sent to encampments of homeless people, Doyle said.

She felt that community-based providers were highly responsive to the pandemic and quickly started telehealth services.

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Just before the pandemic struck, the health department received a set of wheels that will expand its telehealth services. An RV will serve as the county’s mobile health clinic to reach people in areas where public transportation is an issue and the need for services is high, such as the North Carroll area, Mount Airy and Taneytown, Doyle said. The initiative is called the Carroll County Care Collaborative.

In July 2019, the health department announced its plan for the mobile health clinic at a Board of County Commissioners meeting. Doyle said Thursday the RV will offer telehealth services and medication-assisted addiction treatment.

The launch of the mobile clinic was put on hold when the pandemic began. Doyle said they want to hire a driver who can also be a peer support specialist. She hopes they’ll be able to hit the road soon, but the health department will have to carefully to balance its resources while still addressing the pandemic.

Doyle encourages anyone with behavioral health concerns, such as substance abuse, to call the health department at 410-876-4449.

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