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Pandemic exacerbates opioid crisis, experts say

Maryland’s opioid crisis has not disappeared, even in the midst of a new health crisis. But the state still has services available for those seeking help for addiction.

As both national and DC health departments deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis that has devastated communities in the United States has not disappeared.

Brendan Saloner, an associate professor in the Department of Health, Politics and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that preliminary data show that deaths with deaths in 2019 reached their highest level on record, with 72,000 reported.

“Going into COVID, we were in an extremely bad situation, and there is every reason to believe that COVID is making it worse,”

; Saloner said.

He explained the gloomy outlook in this way: “Social isolation, job loss, a feeling of anxiety and depression that many people feel – all of these things are triggers,” he said.

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Dr. Aliya Jones, Deputy Secretary of the Maryland Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Administration, agreed.

COVID-19 has exacerbated all factors that can drive overdoses, Jones said, and research has shown that people with substance abuse disorders will use at higher rates under these conditions.

A piece of data gives a snapshot of what seems to be the trend, says Jones. In May 2019, there were 191 deaths from opioid overdoses. In May 2020, there were 217. And she noted that an uptick in overdoses was obvious back in December.

In the DC area, Arlington County, Virginia, reported an increase in fatal opioid-related overdoses.

In August, Arlington County police said they were investigating five deaths that may be drug-related, and they suspect the deaths are linked to heroin-prescribed painkillers mixed with fentanyl, according to a news release.

In 2019, there were six reported fatal opioid overdoses in Arlington County. As of 11 August this year, the number of fatal overdoses in the county is reported 15.

Jones said another result of COVID-19 is that, due to social isolation, people who use opioids end up with them alone, which reduces the likelihood that someone can revive them with naloxone, an overdose-altering drug.

And there is another question, according to Jones: “There has been a reduction in the use of substance use services”, such as. methadone maintenance program.

It has also reduced the number of people with substance abuse problems who show up at hospital emergency rooms.

Salons said it is a major problem, “because we treat many people who are in the middle of an overdose or who only have conditions related to their abuse in the hospital.”

“I’m pretty worried about that question, actually,” he added.

One thing Jones said health officials are trying to figure out is why the number of overdoses has dropped in Baltimore City but has increased in Prince George’s County, “which is not a county that usually has a large number of overdoses.”

Asked why he said that, Jones said it was not clear: “We’re not really sure what it’s about, to be really honest with you,” she said.

Despite concerns that the opioid crisis continues to ripple through communities, Salons saw a glimmer of hope.

“The federal government has given greater legislative flexibility to allow people to receive their drug treatment through telehealth options,” and that means patients do not have to go to a clinic every day to get their drugs, he said.

But Salons added: “This ability to continue to offer these alternatives will only continue as long as we have a declared federal public health crime.”

For information on where and how to get help, visit these websites:

Jones said there has been an emphasis on a public education campaign to let people know that although COVID-19 has caused a lot of suspensions, services and treatment are still available.

Her message: “Know that treatment exists – and that it works.”

WTOP’s Abigail Constantino contributed to this report.

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