Tackling Public Health Enemy No. 1

County accelerates effort to address opioid addiction and overdose

With Baltimore County experiencing the second-highest number of deaths related to opioid addiction, county officials are turning to a workgroup of experts and health care professionals, and increasing their public engagement and education and awareness in order to address the crisis.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Maryland ranks in the top five states in the nation for opioid-involved drug deaths.

In Baltimore County, last year 352 people died of opioids, which include heroin, prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, morphine and methadone. Only Baltimore City, with 814 fatal overdoses, surpasses the county; Anne Arundel County, Prince George’s and Harford counties follow. 

In the first quarter of this year, fewer people are dying when compared to the same period last year—data that offers hope that interventions are beginning to take root. Still, the numbers present a grim situation that prompted Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski to call for an opioid strategy public town hall, which was held on July 10 at Community College of Baltimore County’s Catonsville campus, and in June at CCBC in Dundalk.

A presentation at the town hall revealed interesting demographics about the opioid users. When it comes to race, the highest percentage of opioid users and deaths are among white males, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health: 73 percent of the drug-intoxication deaths were of whites, 24 percent were African American, and 2 percent were Hispanic. Overall, 74 percent of those who died were male.

The statistics by gender were just as compelling. Comparing the general population to opioid related deaths by age, nearly 40 percent of the county population is between 30 and 59 years old. Yet almost three-quarters of those who died of a drug-related overdose fell in that age range. Less than 2 percent of the deaths were of people younger than 20 years old.

From a graph that attributes data from the Police Department, most of the overdoses appeared to take place in the southwest and eastern sectors of the county.

“Heroin has been a mainstay of drug addiction since the ‘60s,” says Gregory Branch, director of health and human services for Baltimore County. “What’s new at this particular time is the number of deaths secondary to opioid overdose, and that is coming from the fentanyl.”

At the meeting, members of the workgroup County Executive John Olszewski appointed to lead the effort shared their thoughts.  

One strategy the county is considering is a Seattle-based program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) . One of the town hall presenters was Steven Olson, a Baltimore City police lieutenant and Owings Mills resident, who lost a younger brother to heroin addiction and heads the city’s program. LEAD encourages police officers to refer non-violent drug offenders to a case manager to assist the abuser with treatment and other support services instead of making a drug arrests. 

The county is accelerating its interventions with evidence based practices, Branch says. “We have seen a decrease in the number of deaths in Baltimore County preliminarily for the first quarter of 2019, and I believe that’s because of the amount of Narcan [the brand name for Naloxone, a lifesaving prescription drug that reverses opioid overdose] on the street at this point in time. “

The county, and most other jurisdictions, offers two-hour trainings for persons wishing to learn how to use the medication in case of emergency. More than 1,360 people took the training last year.   

The county is taking an approach called R.E.A.C.H., which promotes recovery, education, assessment, collaboration and help to address substance use and opioid overdose deaths. 

“It’s very complicated, but we’re trying to provide all of these wraparound services,” Branch says.

Access to people who have lived the experience is important, Branch says. “I have a lot of peer recovery counselors who are out on the street,” who meet with clients, provide one-on-one naxolone trainings and assist with securing services and resources.

There are six methadone clinics in the county, including clinics in Pikesville and Woodlawn, and multiple medication assisted treatment (MAT) providers around the county. There is also a walk-in assessment clinic at Liberty Family Resources Center, as well as in the detention center. 

This fall, a residential facility, first announced in May 2018 under the administration of the late Kevin Kamenetz, will open on the former site of Rosewood Center in Owings Mills. It will treat initially up to 30 beds, then expand to 70 patients in the county-owned Richards Building. It will be open 24 hours, 365 days a week.

Branch says, “Right now we have zero beds in Baltimore County. We’ve been sending our people to other jurisdictions.”

Branch says, “I’m hopeful that the number of people dying from the opioid epidemic will start to decrease. But that does not correlate with the number of people who are addicted.”

“Opioid addiction is a disease and we’re going to treat it like a disease.”