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Overdose deaths drop in county's first months of 2016

Carroll County started 2016 in a more positive fashion than the year prior when it comes to fatal drug overdoses, seeing roughly half as many deaths related to drugs and alcohol from January through March of this year compared with the same time period in 2015 and bucking a statewide trend of increasing numbers of deaths.

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Carroll County had a total of five drug and alcohol deaths in the first quarter of 2016, while in first quarter 2015 that number was 11, according to the report. By the end of 2015, the total number of fatal overdoses in Carroll had climbed to 40, according to an annual overdose report released by DHMH earlier in June.

Carroll has also seen fewer deaths related to each major drug category thus far in 2016, with three deaths related to heroin compared with five in 2015; one death related to prescription opioids as opposed to the five in 2015; one death related to alcohol compared with two in 2015; and no deaths related to either fentanyl or cocaine. The first quarter of 2015 saw one death related to each of those drugs.

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Carroll officials are cautiously optimistic.

"It's definitely encouraging, and we would hope that it would reflect all the efforts we are making here in Carroll County," said Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer. "It is a very small snapshot in time, and you have to be cautious about wanting to point to a positive trend when it is such a small snapshot."

A data point in favor of Carroll County initiatives having an impact is that the county has seen a decrease in deaths while much of the rest of the state has not: Maryland as a whole saw 383 people die from a drug or alcohol overdose in those three months, up from 318 in 2015.

In addition, while many other counties also saw increases in the number of overdoses in that time period — Allegany saw 16 in 2016 versus five in the first quarter of 2015 and Baltimore County saw an increase from 47 deaths from first quarter 2015 to 64 in 2016 — Baltimore City, which like Carroll has also implemented an aggressive distribution program for the opioid drug antidote naloxone, saw a slight decrease from 116 deaths in first quarter 2015 to 107 this year.

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Carroll County State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo was likewise hopeful that many of the programs implemented in the past 12 months could be applying downward pressure on the number of fatal overdoses in Carroll. He is absolutely convinced, for example, that Tim Weber, the drug treatment and education liaison with DeLeonardo's office, has saved lives by meeting with people who have survived an overdose and facilitating their entry into rehab and treatment programs.

"You saw a lot of enhanced efforts being made, especially by our office, around August or September. Some of this is just being implemented and starting to take hold," DeLeonardo said. "I think what we saw in last year's numbers was at least something of a stabilization, and it's certainly my hope that we continue to see these kinds of encouraging numbers."

But the types of drugs driving overdoses throughout the state have the potential to disrupt positive trend lines dramatically and quickly.

State Health Secretary Van Mitchell told The Baltimore Sun that heroin and other drugs laced surreptitiously with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl have led to many deaths because people had no idea they were consuming a drug 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.

In Carroll County, DeLeonardo noted, December of 2015 had been a relatively good month in terms of overdoses until a batch of fentanyl laced with heroin killed five people. Even if an overall downward trend in overdose deaths continues throughout 2016, he said, the work is far from finished.

"Our efforts have been prevention and treatment. When we have people that overdose and survive that's what we try to do — we get them immediately into treatment. But if it's fentanyl, we don't ever get that chance," DeLeonardo said. "We have to be cautious and have to continue the efforts, there's no question."

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