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Editorial: Despite progress, weekend overdoses a grim reminder that epidemic continues

The news regarding opioids and overdoses has been relatively encouraging in recent months, with the number of fatal and overall overdoses trending down. But last weekend was a grim reminder that this problem isn’t just going to go away and the need to remain vigilant in the fight against opioid overdoses is vital.

The Carroll County Health Department issued an overdose alert after 11 overdoses were reported last weekend. “That’s the highest number of people we have seen over Friday to Sunday evening,” Lisa Pollard, director of recovery services at the Health Department, told us.

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Health officials blame the overdoses on the presence of powerful drugs, such as fentanyl, contaminating the illegal drug supply. It is likely a tainted batch of heroin moving through Carroll is responsible for the weekend spike in overdoses. Sadly, to those in the know, the weekend overdoses didn’t come as a complete surprise. Frederick County and Baltimore City issued their own overdose alerts a few days prior, according to Sue Doyle, director of the bureau of prevention, wellness, and recovery at the Health Department.

“It looked like last week whatever came in, came in the overall drug supply,” Doyle told us. “We try to watch Baltimore City because they usually put those out three to four days before ours. We hold our breath: Are we going to make it through this one?”

And we continue to hold our breath for the next bad batch that will, inevitably, prompt another horrifying weekend.

That’s not to say some of the awareness and prevention initiatives started by health and law enforcement agencies aren’t making an impact. The county saw significantly lower numbers of overdoses and deaths in the first four months of 2019 compared with the same period in 2018. The total number of overdoses, fatal and nonfatal, in April was 28, a 30 percent decrease over the 40 such overdoses seen in March, according to Carroll County Sheriff’s Office statistics. In April 2018, there were 52 such overdoses. Christine Garvin, Sheriff’s Office crime analyst, previously noted that the total overdoses in the first quarter this year — 98 — was a 72.7% decrease over overdoses in the first quarter of 2018 — 164. That downward trend continued through April, though less steeply, with year-to-date overdose totals through April 2019 at 129 compared to 216 for the first four months of 2018.

Fatal overdoses also decreased in the first four months of 2019, with 17, as compared to 33 deaths in that same time period in 2018. Heroin-related deaths dropped from six through April in 2018 to three deaths through the end of April in 2019. Even deaths related to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid, saw a decrease; 15 fentanyl-related deaths were recorded in the first four months of 2018, and seven have occurred through April in 2019. Cathy Baker, the local behavioral health authority at the Health Department, noted that messaging about the Maryland Good Samaritan law, which protects people from prosecution if they call for help when someone overdoses, seems to have led more people to call for help, leading to fewer deaths.

There are a few events coming up that we encourage those interesting in fighting the opioid epidemic attend. The fifth annual Drug Overdose and Prevention Vigil will be held May 21 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Carroll Community College’s Scott Center in Westminster. Then, on May 29 from 6:30 to 8 p.m., the Finksburg branch of the Carroll County Public Library, will present a community viewing of the “Heroin Still Kills” film.

Getting information out is important and progress appears as if it is being made, although this weekend was a reminder that it’s no time to become complacent. “We still need to be cautious,” Pollard told us. “The last two overdose alerts we put out, the hospital said they had no overdoses for days following. But not this time.”

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