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Pandemic cited as Md. opioid fatalities inch up

Opioid deaths in Maryland increased slightly in the first three months of 2020 from the first quarter of last year, a finding that may reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, state officials said Wednesday.

In the first quarter of 2020, there were 561 opioid-related deaths in Maryland, a 2.6 percent increase from the first quarter of 2019. Additionally, there were increases in unintentional intoxication fatalities related to nearly all other major drug categories in Maryland, including substantial increases in both cocaine-related and alcohol-related deaths.

The findings were included in the state’s quarterly report on the opioid crisis released Wednesday by The Opioid Operational Command Center and the Maryland Department of Health. The report includes preliminary data for unintentional drug- and alcohol-related intoxication deaths for the period between January and March 2020.

“While it is simply too early to understand the precise effect that the coronavirus pandemic has had on state’s war against substance use, I can assure you that we recognize the threat that it poses to our progress in the fight and to some of our most vulnerable populations,” said Gov. Larry Hogan. “I am pleased to announce that my administration has created the Maryland COVID-19 Inter-Agency Overdose Action Plan so that we can take steps immediately to ensure that systems and resources are in place for individuals in need of substance use services as a result of the pandemic.”

The first-quarter results represent a slight shift in the direction of the state’s drug-related fatality numbers, which declined in 2019 for the first time in over a decade. There were 626 reported intoxication deaths from all types of drugs and alcohol, representing an increase of 0.8 percent from the 621 intoxication deaths reported in the first three months of 2019.

Opioids accounted for 89.6 percent of all such fatalities. The synthetic opioid fentanyl was involved in 83.5 percent of all cases.

The data also reveal that opioid-related emergency department visits and EMS naloxone administrations were down substantially in the first quarter of 2020. Typically, these statistics would rise in correlation with fatalities, and their declines indicate disruptions in the broader response systems that may have lingering effects on people who use drugs.

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