BALTIMORE — More people in Maryland died of opioid overdoses in 2020 than any year on record, confirming health experts’ fears that the coronavirus pandemic would lead to a sharp uptick in drug use and deaths. The vast majority of the 2,499 opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl, a cheap and powerful synthetic opioid that’s magnitudes more potent than heroin.
But another concerning trend has emerged: A record number of people died from prescription opioids, the painkillers state officials have long blamed as the source of the opioid crisis.
According to the state health department, 445 people died of prescription opioids overdoses in 2020, the most ever recorded. Another 136 people died of prescription overdoses in the first 90 days of 2021, a more than 37% increase compared to the same period of 2020.
“If this trend were to persist throughout the year, it would represent a historic milestone, with prescription opioid-related deaths now outpacing heroin-related deaths for the first time since 2011,” state health officials wrote in a June report on the first quarter of 2021, the latest data available.
The increase followed a relaxing of rules by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and state and local officials of restrictions on how and when doctors can prescribe opioids, in response to the coronavirus outbreak. With travel restricted and trips to the doctor more difficult, the state made it easier to get medicine remotely.
Experts in the field applauded the move, and continue to do so, but say the relaxed restrictions may have enabled prescription abuse.
Kristy Blalock, regional director for Gaudenzia, the state’s largest provider of substance use treatment, said she’s noticed a growing number of people entering treatment who had been prescribed large amounts of opioids and began abusing them.
“They believe that it’s because they’re not seeing their physician,” she said. “They’re just putting in refills over and over again.”
As deaths from prescription opioids rise, experts say the state needs to take a hard look at the data to see what happened.
“It’s concerning enough that we need to try to figure out where this is coming from before we write it off that this is pandemic-related,” said David Pushkin, an orthopedic surgeon who founded the committee on opioids for MedChi, the state medical society.