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January 16, 2021

Overdose deaths soar in region

Credit: Cumberland Times-News, Lindsay Renner-Wood

CUMBERLAND — Western Maryland saw the state’s largest percent increase in opioid deaths in the third quarter of 2020, according to a recently-released state report.

Allegany County was particularly hard-hit, experiencing a 111.1% increase in opioid deaths the first nine months of 2020 compared to 2019, per the quarterly Opioid Operational Command Center report. According to the data, 38 residents died of opioid overdoses between January and September 2020, compared with 18 during the same period in 2019.

Garrett County saw a 25% increase in the same time frame — five residents died in 2020 and four in 2019. Washington County saw a 36.8% increase, rising from 57 deaths to 78.

“The largest regional percent increase in opioid-related fatalities through the third quarter of 2020 was observed in Western Maryland, which includes Garrett, Allegany, and Washington Counties,” according to the report. “Western Maryland reported 121 regional deaths through the first three quarters of 2020, a 53.2 percent increase compared to this point last year. With 78 fatalities, Washington County accounted for 64.4 percent of the regional opioid-related deaths.”

Statewide, there were 1,829 opioid deaths reported through the third quarter of 2020, a 14.5% increase from 2019. Fentanyl deaths increased by 16.7% and reportedly accounted for 93% of total opioid deaths, or 1,702, while heroin fatalities decreased by 29% from one year to the next.

“The devastating increases in overdose deaths throughout my district and the state of Maryland confirm that we are not doing nearly enough to support those with substance-use disorders through the COVID-19 pandemic,” said U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) in a statement. “As politicians argue in Washington, real people are dying from overdoses and mental health challenges across the country. We cannot waste any time to increase funds for treatment programs, connect individuals with the care they need, and bolster our prevention efforts to curb the addiction epidemic. We need all hands on deck. Lives are at stake.”

Melissa Clark, associate director at AHEC West, an agency that works to improve access to and quality of health care in the region, said Thursday that while she expected the third quarter numbers to be bad, she was still surprised by exactly how dire they were.

“I’m just really sad,” Clark said. “I mean, we expected the numbers to be bad. However, it just means we have to work harder. We’re just going to have to continue to push the resources, continue to push the naloxone training, continue to educate both the person with substance-use disorder as well as the general population, and educate people to understand about the stigma, understand that it can happen to anyone.”

She worries, too, that things will only get worse when moratoriums on evictions that were enacted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic expire. Clark said she and others discussed that scenario during a recent meeting.

“There’s some people in the community that are like $10,000 in debt to their landlord,” she said. “So we’re going to start to see more doom and gloom, and that landlords are unable to make their payments if they owe on the home that they’re renting. Renters are not going to be able to pay their payments, so they’re going to become homeless, and all that ties into crime and into substance use and mental health. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen once the moratorium is lifted, but that will definitely come into play with all of this, because people will unfortunately commit crime to help with their habit. … It’s just this cycle that’s going to happen all over again.”

Still, Clark said, because of the strong existing partnerships between agencies like AHEC West and the Allegany County Health Department, and those they have with other invested community organizations, she feels the area can pull through.

“I think that one of the great things about Allegany County and Western Maryland is we all work together, we form partnerships, we utilize our resources to the best of our abilities and come together as one,” Clark said. “That’s one of the good things about Healing Allegany, if I’m giving it a plug, is that we get everyone around the table. … It’s getting all the right people together and just working on the resources.”

Healing Allegany is a three-year initiative funded by a $1 million federal grant designed to reduce illnesses and death related to opioid and substance use disorders.

“We have great resources,” she said. “There’s never enough, but we have a lot. And we’re just all going to have to keep working together, and we’re going to just have to understand where we’re at and move forward from that.”

COVID-19 undid a lot of progress the county and region have made in recent years, Clark said.

“I honestly don’t think it would have looked this dire had we not had a pandemic,” Clark said. “I really do feel like the pandemic just ruined so much. It’s frustrating to see that 111.1% increase as I’m looking here at the report. But I also know that we will get through it, and we will do everything in our power as a community to try to make it better.”