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Editorial: New initiative, mobile medical unit continuation of local efforts making a difference in fighting opioid epidemic

Perhaps you took note of two stories on our website or in today’s Times that had to do with fighting the opioid epidemic — one regarding billboards put up throughout Carroll listing both scary and encouraging statistics on overdoses and one on a planned mobile medical unit to help those in underserved areas get help. These are a continuation of efforts being made since Carroll countians began overdosing — and dying — in previously unseen numbers a few years ago. Statistics halfway through 2019 suggest that the efforts are making a difference.

Midyear data provided by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office showed there were 23 drug- and/or alcohol-related deaths from January through June this year, compared with 46 such deaths in that same time period in 2018. That’s still too many, but it’s cutting a tragic number in half. Heroin-related deaths decreased from seven to four, and fentanyl-related deaths plummeted from 26 to nine. The total number of overdoses (nonfatal and fatal combined) also decreased. There were 293 overdoses from January through June in 2018, and 194 from January through June this year, an almost 34% decrease, according to the report. The year-over-year decrease in total heroin-related overdoses was 121 to 72. June 2019 also had the lowest number of total overdoses, at 34, for any June since 2015, when there were just 14; June 2016 saw 39 overdoses, June 2017 had 41 and June 2018 saw 42 total overdoses.

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Those numbers provide some welcome good news. But it’s too early to claim a major trend, and it would certainly be a mistake to dial back efforts to address this far-reaching issue. That’s why we support the new initiative aimed at better educating the public about the reality of this situation. Five new signs around Carroll County are now displaying the number of total overdoses in Carroll in the first six months of 2019, 446, as well as the number of lives lost, 24, and those saved, 422 — along with information on how to get help for substance use disorders. (The Health Department’s and Sheriff’s Office’s data differs slightly -- the Sheriff’s Office data set might not always record overdoses where law enforcement was not involved, such as in situations where the opioid antidote naloxone was administered by a friend or family member and the victim was never taken to a hospital.)

The signs are meant to highlight that tentative success, Valerie Hawkins, Carroll’s emergency management manager, told us, while also continuing to push the message that opioid addiction can kill. In order to understand the severity of any problem, it’s essential to have an accurate picture of that problem. These signs can help involve the greater public toward that end.

Meanwhile, the Carroll County Health Department announced Thursday the receipt of grant funding that will allow it to purchase a van and equipment and hire a driver to provide behavioral health services in places in Carroll not being easily reached. Transportation can be a barrier for treatment. While Westminster has plenty of overdoses, for example, providers are more easily accessible there, so the van will focus on places that lack resources, such as the Manchester-Hampstead area, Taneytown, Sykesville, and Mount Airy. The initiative will be called the Carroll County Care Collaborative. The driver, who has yet to be hired, will offer in-person and will also be able to link the patient to other resources and help them advocate for themselves. Suboxone will also be available to treat addiction.

These are good steps, the continuation of a response to a crisis that for far too long was only getting worse and worse, and in line with what Sheriff Jim DeWees told us last month about how officials are approaching the opioid epidemic: “We will continue to pound the message into people’s heads — this will kill you — and do everything possible to get people into treatment so they are not statistics.”

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