Fentanyl Still Drives Opiate Addiction in Montgomery County

Fentanyl Still Drives Opiate Addiction in Montgomery County

There have been 49 overdose deaths in county this year

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At a press briefing on Friday, county officials unveiled an art exhibit by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg that addresses the pain of addiction. The exhibit will be displayed through the end of October.

Photo by Kate Masters

Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine, is still driving overdoses in Montgomery County, a county health official said Friday.

County officials are concerned that new forms of the drug could complicate efforts to reduce opiate addiction and overdoses, Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, added.

The comments, made during a press conference on efforts to combat the crisis, highlight the difficulties of treating an issue that’s ballooned into a nationwide epidemic. Across the country, more than two million Americans misuse heroin or prescription opioids, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In Montgomery County, there have been 49 overdose deaths this year, including seven in September.

“I wish I could say I was happy to be here, but this is not a happy event,” County Executive Marc Elrich said at the briefing. “Last year, we saw a 30% decline in fatal overdoses, but there are still far too many.”

Making significant reductions in the number of overdoses has remained a perennial problem for the county. There was a decline from 2017 to 2018, but rates have remained stagnant or increased in the past year, Crowel said.

Health officials are worried about emerging forms of the drug and its misuse in combination with other narcotics. On Friday morning, Crowel said he learned that acrylfentanyl, a synthetic opiate, was recently found in western Pennsylvania — close enough that Montgomery County police were treating it as a concern.

The county has seen at least three cases of cocaine cut with fentanyl connected to an overdose. In each case, the user overdoses and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.

“The danger is that patients don’t even know the fentanyl is there,” Crowel said. “And it’s so much more deadly. It dramatically increases the likelihood of an overdose.”

Most of the county’s efforts have focused on distributing naloxone — also known by its prescription name, Narcan — a medication that can counter the effects of an opiate overdose.

Jacqueline Fleming, a Montgomery County resident in recovery from opiate addiction, credited the medication with saving her from 18 different overdoses.

“Without it, I might not have gotten another chance,” she said at the briefing. “I can personally say that Narcan was a tool that helped save my life.”

Distributing the medication is especially important given the pervasiveness of fentanyl, a more potent opiate that can require a second administration of naloxone to counter an overdose, Crowel said.

The county has implemented a team of peer recovery specialists to respond to overdose sites and extend help to the victim.

Since the program was launched in 2018, roughly 444 people were referred to help, according to county data.

Crowel said the Department of Health is considering other initiatives, which he plans to submit to Elrich before the end of the fiscal year.

One of the biggest possibilities is a needle exchange program, which allows active users to pick up sterile injection equipment at county-run sites. Similar programs have attracted attention across the country, including in Frederick County, which launched a syringe services program after months of community meetings and dialogues.

The services can be controversial, Crowel said. But county data also show that there’s a need for them.

“We have rough estimates that 30% to 40% of our residents who use opioids are IV users,” he said. “That tells us we need to do something. It’s a way to stop diseases like hepatitis and HIV and hopefully refer these people to treatment.”

From January to June, Montgomery County was tied for sixth in the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in Maryland, according to data from the state Health Department. Baltimore City was first, with 449, and Baltimore County was second with 168.

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