Overdose deaths outpace all of 2016
NAACP discussion deals with trends of opioid crisis in St. Mary’s
Last Thursday was International Overdose Awareness Day, and it was another reminder of the opioid crisis that continues to worsen, killing nearly 100 Americans every day.
Although data from the Maryland Department of Health showed the number of overdose deaths in Southern Maryland decreased slightly in the first quarter of this year, six-month numbers from local sheriff’s offices suggest this year’s numbers to be about the same or higher, if the trend continues.
In St. Mary’s, the fatality rate related to opioids so far has already eclipsed that of the entire year of 2016 for all drugs, said Dr. Meena Brewster, St. Mary’s health officer, at a NAACP meeting Thursday night at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center.
Capt. Steven Hall from the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office said the county has had 19 deaths related to overdoses already this year. Last year, St. Mary’s total number of overdose fatalities related to drugs and alcohol was 15.
Another indicator of the worsening crisis is the increasing number of emergency department visits made by county residents. In her presentation Thursday, Brewster said the number of emergency room visits increased almost 50 percent from 167 in 2015 to 246 in 2016.
And the upward trend is not showing any signs of slowing down. In the first seven months alone, St. Mary’s residents made 231 visits.
The bulk of people visiting emergency rooms are those between the ages of 20 to 50, Brewster said. “It’s the working class that’s been affected by this.”
In terms of racial breakdown, whites account for about 80 percents of all visits while African Americans make up between 10 to 15 percent. Brewster said the
percentage breakdown is fairly similar to the county’s demographic.
Janice Walthour, president of the NAACP’s St. Mary’s chapter, asked the law enforcement officials who are the people being arrested related to opioids.
“They are everyone,” Hall replied. “I’ve arrested people that I went to school with.”
Calling it “equal opportunity death,” St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard Fritz (R) said all races and ethnicities are affected by the epidemic.
Fritz said what he sees is that “everybody is being equally killed. Everybody is being equally addicted. Everybody is being equally distributing drugs.”
Health officials have long attributed the rising fatality rate to the lethality of the drugs.
The major reason behind overdose deaths is drugs like fentanyl, which has emerged as the major fatality factor, Brew- ster said.
Fentanyl is much more potent than heroin, and a lot cheaper to manufacture. According to what she learned from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency presentation, Brewster said the manufacturing cost for 1 kilogram of heroin is about $65,000, compared to $2,500 for the same amount of fentanyl.
A few years ago, Fritz said cocaine was a big problem. What followed was the arrival of oxycontin, and law enforce- ment started to see lots of false prescriptions and people counterfeiting doctors’ names going into drug stores.
“Now what we are seeing is that the medical community is tightening up on their prescriptions on giving out oxycontin, which they used to give out like candy,” Fritz said.
What’s frightening about the opioid crisis, he said, is people getting heroin mixed with fentanyl or carfentanil without knowing it and, as a result, “they are dropping like flies.”
Carfentanil, an opioid 100 times more potent than fentanyl, has already shown up in the region. Used as animal tranquilizers for bears and elephants, carfentanil looks like table salt and a minuscule amount — just a few grains — is enough to kill.
Looking back over his long career, Fritz called opioids “the most devastating drug we’ve ever seen.”
Brewster said the key in dealing with the crisis is to keep people connected to the system.
“Rehab may not work the first time, or the second time, or the third time,” but she emphasized that treatment is effective and people do get their lives back.
Residents can find treatment resources at MdDestinationRecovery.org, BeforeItsTooLateMD.org, or call the state crisis hotline at 1-800422-0009. The local hotline at Walden is 301-863-6661.
St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard Fritz (R), left, speaks Thursday night at a NAACP meeting discussing the opioid crisis at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center while Dr. Meena Brewster, St. Mary’s health officer, listens. STAFF PHOTOS BY DANDAN ZOU Alonzo Gaskin, left, asks a question while Charlottis Woodley and Tony Lawrence look on Thursday night at a NAACP meeting discussing the opioid crisis at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center.