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Howard County reports more than 40% increase in opioid-related deaths in 2020

Howard County on Monday announced a 42% increase in opioid-related deaths in 2020 compared to 2019.

There were 40 opioid-related overdose deaths in the county in 2020 — up from 28 in 2019 — according to the Howard County Police Department.

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The death toll is the highest in the county since 2017, when 51 Howard residents died due to opioid overdoses.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly highlighted the disparities in our health care system, including the need for greater resources to continue combating substance use disorders,” Howard County County Executive Calvin Ball said. “The increase in fatal overdoses is a trend that we’re seeing across the country this year, and it’s vital that in 2021 we pursue more solutions to ensure that those facing substance misuse are able to receive the care they need, even amid a pandemic.”

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The 40 opioid-related overdose deaths in the county could increase by as many as five, according to the police department. At the end of 2020, five suspected opioid deaths still need an autopsy.

In addition to the 40 opioid overdose deaths in Howard County, the county also recorded 152 nonfatal overdoses, slightly down from the 156 in 2019 and much lower than the 188 recorded in 2018.

The reversal in opioid-related overdoses is also reflected in the statewide numbers. The Maryland Department of Health and the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center reported in September that drug- and alcohol-related deaths increased by 9.1% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same time frame in 2019. Of the 1,326 deaths, 90% were opioid-related.

The command center’s report said it’s “clear” that the coronavirus pandemic was a factor that caused the uptick.

“Taken together, the associated social isolation, disruptions of support, impeded access to care, and economic distress have helped to create an extremely dangerous environment for those suffering from substance use disorder,” the report said.

The report also showed an increase in alcohol- and cocaine-related deaths, as well as a decrease in emergency room visits for nonfatal opioid overdoses.

The command center’s third quarter report, which usually comes out in January, has not yet been released.

In November, the Howard County Health Department expanded its harm reduction programs with mobile services that provide HIV testing, Narcan training and safe sex supplies.

The vehicle, located in the health department’s parking lot in Columbia, is staffed by multiple peer support specialists from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who participate in harm reduction programs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment programs and three times more likely to stop using drugs.

“The goal is to combat the continuing problem of the opioid epidemic, as well as the fatal and nonfatal overdoses, which continue to be a problem,” said Lisa Morrel, recovery support and harm reduction supervisor for the county health department. “We want to lower the risk of infection from disease for those who do still continue to engage in risky behaviors, but the statistics show participants are less likely to. It’s a public health approach that makes sense for our community.”

Baltimore Sun reporter McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.

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