Although the opioid crisis in Frederick County has slipped from the front pages of the newspaper, overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see a significant and growing number of deaths from opioid overdoses. The opioid epidemic is still with us and continues to rage out of control. If the second half of 2020 mirrors the first half, Frederick County will reach new heights in the number of opioid related overdose deaths reported to the county’s law enforcement agencies.
The first six months of 2020 saw 32 confirmed fatal opioid related overdoses, with two possible opioid related overdoses pending the state medical examiner’s final determination. If this trend continues for the remainder of 2020, we could see a significant increase in opioid overdose deaths. This follows a slight dip in overdose deaths for 2019 which came after a record 55 fatal opioid overdoses in 2018.
The increase in opioid related overdose deaths is something that is being experienced statewide, according to the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center and Maryland Department of Health. There was a 2.6 percent increase in overdose fatalities for the first quarter of this year over the same time period for 2019.
The continued rise in opioid related overdose deaths is troubling and it is still too early to tell what is driving the current increase. Some thought is that the COVID-19 pandemic is a contributing factor. As the pandemic rages on, fears of contracting the virus, isolation, changes in the workplace leading to widespread unemployment and a sense of ongoing uncertainty can impact those fighting addiction as well as those who may be vulnerable to developing a substance abuse habit.
The good news is that the non-fatal opioid overdoses continue to trend downward in Frederick County with 103 reported to law enforcement for the first six months of this year. After reaching a high of 355 non-fatal overdoses in 2016, reported non-fatal cases have been trending downward ever since. However, this trend may not represent success in reducing the number of those fighting addiction. This reduction of reported non-fatal overdose cases may be the result of the widespread availability of Naloxone hydrochloride commonly known as Narcan, a drug that reverses the deadly effects of an opioid overdose.
Now available over the counter, the lifesaving drug Narcan has been instrumental in saving countless lives. It is thought that due to the availability of Narcan, many opioid overdoses go unreported. A family member or friend can administer Narcan to an overdose victim, bringing them back from what otherwise might have been a fatal overdose, and not report it to law enforcement.
At a time of political and economic uncertainty, coupled with health concerns over COVID-19, all of which can be contributing factors in in substance abuse, we must not lose sight of the fact that while we are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid epidemic continues to run its course with increasingly deadly consequences.
Karl Bickel, formerly second in command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and former assistant professor of criminal justice is retired from the U.S. Department of Justice and writes from Monrovia. He can be reached at KarlBickel@comcast.net.