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Maryland deaths from prescription opioids could outpace those caused by heroin for first time in 10 years

Phil Davis, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in News & Features

It’s happened before. Maryland’s opioid-related deaths more than tripled between 2011 and 2016 to 1,856, which state officials said was partly fueled by some medical practitioners overprescribing legal opioid painkillers. The state enacted regulations in 2017 meant to curb excessive prescriptions for opioids in the state’s Medicaid program, only to see deaths from heroin and particularly fentanyl then surge.

Albert Smith, a 52-year-old from Glen Burnie, completed a Gaudenzia outpatient treatment program in September 2020. He said he’s taken a number of drugs, including cocaine and heroin, but began abusing opioid painkillers after he was prescribed some for avascular necrosis, a disease that effects the blood flow to bones.

He said he’s been fortunate to have a significant other at his side who motivated him to get sober, but said he understands the feelings of loneliness that could be exacerbated by life during the pandemic.

“I was isolated when I was using. I didn’t want anybody to see me,” Smith said. “For a long time, I was disgusted with myself. That’s where the isolation came in.”

Isolation is pronounced in rural areas, which saw some of the largest proportional increases in opioid-related deaths. While Baltimore City continues to see the most fatal overdoses overall, Allegany County in Western Maryland and Worcester County on the Eastern Shore saw the largest percentage increases in opioid deaths year-over-year.

So, some advocates are worried that isolation and easier access to prescriptions may have created a new group of people who’ve become hooked on painkillers.

 

“Their normal schedule has changed and not everyone has the ability to cope with that,” Blalock said.

Turbocharged telehealth

The pandemic didn’t create telehealth. The concept of remote access to medical services began long before we could connect with people from across the globe with pocket-size technology.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service — a nonprofit program in Australia that brings medical services to people in far-flung areas and is considered the first comprehensive air ambulance service in the world — has operated for nearly 100 years, largely due to the advent of the radio and flight in the early 20th century.

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