The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As spending on opioid epidemic soars, Md. officials say death rate is ‘starting to plateau’

An opioid user prepares heroin, placing a fentanyl test strip into the mixing container to check for contamination, in New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Opioids again killed a record number of people in Maryland last year, but state officials said Thursday that the unprecedented epidemic now fueled by fentanyl deaths is starting to show signs of slowing.

Preliminary data found 2,114 opioid-related deaths in Maryland in 2018, a 5.2 percent increase from the year before.

Though the annual death toll remains record-breaking — and more than four times higher than just nine years ago — the rate of increase is the slowest single-year jump since 2011, according to a first-of-its-kind state report released Thursday. Opioid-related deaths increased by 8.2 percent in 2017 and by 70.4 percent in 2016, the report said.

“We are encouraged that the epidemic is starting to plateau,” said Steven R. Schuh, executive director of Maryland’s Opioid Operational Command Center, a state organization that tracks government’s response to the crisis and issued the report.

Statewide, Maryland is expected to spend $672 million on opioid-related initiatives this fiscal year, the report said — $242 million more than it will spend building schools. Next fiscal year, opioid-related spending will rise to $747 million.

The latest data paints a grim picture of an epidemic that has killed 10,936 people in Maryland since 2009.

While deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers continued to decline last year, more people were killed by fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 50 times as powerful as heroin — and fentanyl mixed with cocaine.

Deaths attributed to heroin deaths dropped by 23.7 percent, a decline the report attributed in part to addicts replacing heroin with fentanyl. And deaths from prescription drugs dropped by 10 percent, though they were still at historic highs. Cocaine overdose deaths rose in 2018, with the vast majority — 88.7 percent — from cocaine mixed with fentanyl.

As recently as July, Maryland public health officials had labeled the surge in fentanyl deaths “staggering.” But annual fentanyl deaths did not increase as quickly in 2018 as they did previously — rising 17.1 percent last year, compared with a 42.5 percent spike the year before.

“We remain alarmed by the high toxicity, portability, difficulty of detection, low price, and wide availability of synthetic opioids,” the report said.

The official death toll will be released by public health officials in July.

More than a third of deaths in 2018 were in Baltimore City, with nearly another third in neighboring Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

The report tracked various state and local efforts to respond to the crisis, including the number of kilograms of drugs seized and the number of people trained to administer naloxone, which can reverse an overdose before it becomes fatal. Maryland saw a 14 percent decline in opioid prescriptions last year and increased residential treatment beds by 44 percent, up to 2,333.

Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have the lowest rates of opioid-related deaths in the state, the report said, with 6.9 deaths per 100,000 residents. The death rate in Baltimore is more than seven times as high.

Democrats say president betrayed his base on a devastating addiction scourge

As fatal heroin overdoses exploded in black neighborhoods, D.C. officials ignored lifesaving strategies

Obama officials failed to focus as fentanyl burned its way across America

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news