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Our View: Overall overdose data for 2020 encouraging, but recent reports troubling | COMMENTARY

The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office’s annual report on drug overdoses looks encouraging given that Carroll saw a slight drop in overdoses and a significant decline in fatal overdoses last year when compared with the previous few years. But the most recent monthly reports, as well as national trends, are troubling and suggest that the county could be headed for higher numbers.

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

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Much of the positive data, however, seems to be from the period of March through July, when many of the more restrictive COVID-19 measures were in place and when it has been speculated fewer drugs were coming into the country. Carroll saw 169 overdoses, 8.15% fewer than the 184 for that time period in 2019.

Brant Webb, regional heroin coordinator with the Carroll County Drug Task Force, told us one possible reason for the decrease was “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 ... [and] 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.”

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Sue Doyle, a registered nurse with the county’s Bureau of Prevention, Wellness, & Recovery, told us COVID-19 kept people in and not traveling to seek drugs. For a while.

“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,” she said.

The final four months of 2020 showed 165 overdoses for Carroll, a 6.4% increase for that time period year over year. And, most distressing, there had already been six fatal overdoses in 2021 by Jan. 20, according to Webb.

Nationally, data suggests Carroll was lucky during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.

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“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield.

Additionally, experts such as University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, have theorized that the isolation and economic instability caused by the pandemic for many has increased “deaths of despair” such as overdoses and suicides. While unemployment wouldn’t typically contribute to more overdoses given that those out of work don’t typically have money to spend on drugs, the federal relief aid — stimulus checks — changed that equation, Mulligan, a White House economist in the Trump administration, told National Public Radio.

We’re glad overdoses have decreased by 17% and fatal overdoses by 37% in the past two years. But vigilance is needed. With the health department and other agencies overwhelmed and, in some cases limited in what they can do, because of COVID-19, the increase in overdoses over the final months of 2020 and the tragic start to 2021 are cause for concern that the strides made since 2018 could be undone.

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