A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration photo of fentanyl-laced pills (AP)

Fewer people died of heroin and fentanyl in Maryland in the first quarter of 2019 than during the same period the previous year, preliminary data shows, marking the state’s first decline in fatal opioid overdoses in a decade.

Though the data represents a 14 percent decline, or 85 fewer deaths, Maryland public health officials were quick to point out that the opioid epidemic continues at a historic pace, killing more than 500 people in the first three months of this year.

The report also notes that data for both 2018 and 2019 remains preliminary and subject to change. The official death toll for 2018 will be released in July.

Fentanyl — the synthetic drug 50 times more potent than heroin — continues to fuel the death toll. While many deaths involved more than one substance, fentanyl was involved in 92 percent of all opioid overdoses, the data shows.

“The heroin and opioid crisis in Maryland is by no means over,” Steven R. Schuh, executive director of the Opioid Operational Command Center, said in a statement. “ We remain in the midst of a public health crisis of unprecedented magnitude.”

An addict prepares heroin, placing a fentanyl test strip into the mixing container to check for contamination. If the strip registers a "pinkish" to red marker then the heroin is positive for contaminants. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Health officials nonetheless acknowledged the first-in-a-decade milestone as evidence the epidemic might be slowing. Sixteen of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions reported fewer overdose deaths in the first quarter of 2019 than during that period in 2018.

“We have never witnessed so many counties reporting declines in the number of opioid-related fatalities,” Schuh said.

It was the second time in a month that Maryland officials released preliminary data on overdose deaths that they said suggested the tide may be turning.

Both reports came from the office led by Schuh, the former Anne Arundel county executive who lost his reelection bid last fall and was subsequently appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) as the command center’s executive director.

A May report by Schuh’s group used preliminary 2018 data to conclude the epidemic was “starting to plateau.”

That report said Maryland is expected to spend $672 million on opioid-related initiatives this fiscal year — $242 million more than it will spend building schools.

Next fiscal year, the state’s opioid-related spending will rise to $747 million.

The epidemic has killed more than 11,000 people in Maryland since 2009.