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Carroll County reports drop in overdoses, drug fatalities in 2020 despite concerns COVID-19 would spawn uptick

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in last March, Carroll County health and government officials expressed concern that the isolation could spark a significant uptick in drug overdoses.

That didn’t happen. In fact, Carroll County reported a decrease in both overdoses and overdose deaths in 2020, marking the second consecutive year these numbers dropped.

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Carroll County saw 426 overdoses in 2020, a 1.8% decrease compared with 2019 based on year-end data compiled by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office reflecting all overdoses reported to law enforcement. The total number of fatal overdoses (45) decreased by 18.2%.

From March through July, when many of the more restrictive COVID-19 measures were in place, Carroll saw 169 overdoses, 8.15% fewer than the 184 for that time period in 2019.

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Brant Webb, regional heroin coordinator with the Carroll County Drug Task Force, said he doesn’t have a definitive explanation for the decreases, but offered a theory.

“One thought is that the COVID-19 pandemic forced a lot of people to stay at home, which means that addicts didn’t spend as much time alone,” he said via email. “I feel that this could have helped our reported overdose numbers, because overdose victims had a peer or family member nearby that either prevented them from using as much or they were able to administer lifesaving Naloxone to reverse the effects of the opioids.”

Sue Doyle, a registered nurse with the county’s Bureau of Prevention, Wellness, & Recovery, said COVID-19 had an effect on those seeking drugs.

“The fear of COVID really is what kept people in and not traveling to seek drugs,” she said via email, also noting that the fear of the virus might have kept people who overdosed from going to hospitals. “However as time went on people became tired or just frustrated and restless, the drug supply returned and we began to see more and more overdoses.”

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Indeed, the final four months of 2020 showed 165 overdoses for Carroll, a 6.4% increase for that time period year over year. Additionally, according to Webb, there had already been six fatal overdoses in 2021 through Wednesday.

Still, the 2020 statistics built on the 2019 data, which saw a steep decline after several years of significant increases in overdoses and fatal overdoses in Carroll County.

There were 513 overdoses and 71 overdose deaths in 2018. So in two years time, those numbers decreased by 17% and 37% respectively. The 45 fatalities in 2020 were the fewest attributed to overdoses since 2015.

One factor seems to be a decrease in heroin use. Heroin-related overdoses for 2020 dropped to 150, a decrease by 14.8% when compared with 2019.

“The main belief is that the cost of synthetic opioids like fentanyl is pennies compared to the cost of heroin so more products can go out at a lower cost and the profit is greater,” Doyle said.

Fentanyl was listed as the cause of 19 of the 45 fatal overdoses with 17 attributed to an unknown substance, five to heroin, two to prescription drugs and two to other controlled dangerous substances. (Only one overdose death has been ruled a suicide.) And that fentanyl number was down from 26 in 2019 and 38 in 2018, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

“We can only hope that our overdoses numbers continue to decrease,” Webb said. “Carroll County has a great partnership with our allied agencies, including the health department, the state’s attorneys Office, parole and Probation and law enforcement and all of these entities collaborate well together to prevent overdoses and save lives.

“Our health department does an excellent job with their outreach program as well and tries to get victims into recovery programs or treatment as soon as possible.”

Of the 426 overdoses, 34% were those aged 25-34 and 24% were 35-44. While heroin use decreased, it still accounted for the most overdoses (150) followed by unknown method/substance (86), prescription medications (74), other CDS (53), fentanyl (27), alcohol (21) and over-the-counter medications (10) with test results of five overdoses still pending.

The final 2020 statistics show that more than half of Carroll County’s overdoses occur within the city limits of Westminster or the patrol area that includes areas outside the city limits but still considered to be Westminster. (Of 218 overdoses within municipality limits in Carroll, 159 were in Westminster. Taneytown was next with 31.)

Doyle said Westminster continues to be the area they are most focused on.

She also cautioned that just because COVID-19 apparently did not contribute to a spike in overdoses doesn’t mean it hasn’t had a significant affect on people’s lives.

“COVID has had a strong negative impact on mental health, especially depression and anxiety. … Additionally, there have been increases in mental health symptoms with first responders and health care providers,” Doyle said. “We are working to ensure that community members know how and where to access resources during this time.”

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