The number of opioid-related deaths in Montgomery County through three quarters of 2020 was 14.7% higher than in all of 2019, according to a new report released this month.
There were 78 opioid-related deaths in the county through September, compared to 68 in all of 2019, according to the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center’s report.
For the first three quarters of 2019, the death total was 66, compared to 57 for the same period in 2018.
There were 244 fatalities in the Capital Region, which is made up of Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties. That was an increase of 34.8%, or 63 fatalities, from all of 2019.
The largest increases by percentage in opioid deaths occurred in Western Maryland.
Steven Schuh, the executive director of the Opioid Operational Command Center, wrote in the report that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a new burden for people already suffering from addiction and substance abuse.
“These vulnerable Marylanders, who last year faced one test, now face two — each one more complex than the other,” he wrote. “The pandemic has made support systems less accessible, economic opportunity more difficult to attain, and despair and uncertainty mounting concerns.”
The report’s executive summary notes that social isolation and economic hardship “have hit Maryland’s vulnerable populations the hardest.”
Ben Stevenson, the prevention and harm reduction manager in the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said he has heard similar anecdotal evidence about the pandemic harming people in recovery.
“It’s easy for some and harder for others. I kind of feel like that kind of situation is on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Stevenson, who oversees the county’s substance abuse and suicide prevention programs, said COVID-19 has affected the work to prevent opioid-related deaths because clients have less access to support systems. Although people can still seek help virtually, the lack of in-person interaction can lead to feelings of isolation.
“Sometimes, that personal interaction is needed, and some people are not able to get that,” he said.
The economic crisis has also hurt people in recovery, Stevenson said.
“When you look at substance use in general, having a stable income is viewed as a protective factor, or having stability of housing and things like that can be a protective factor,” he said. “If you have a person in recovery and they lose all of those things, it increases their chances of relapsing.”
Stevenson said the county has responded to the pandemic by trying to increase the availability of the drug naloxone, known to consumers as Narcan, in parts of the county with higher rates of opioid overdoses. Narcan is administered to someone who overdosed; it can reverse the effects.
“We’ve gotten to a place where we’re still providing trainings on a monthly basis and we’re still getting [Narcan] kits out to our treatment providers [and] our recovery providers,” he said.
Anyone who needs help can call Montgomery County’s 24-hour crisis center at 240-777-4000. To discuss resources and referrals, call 240-777-1170.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org