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6,000 Baltimore Overdose Deaths In Six Years, Highest Ever In Major City

People in Baltimore have been dying of overdoses at a rate never before seen in a major U.S. city -- nearly 6,000 in six years. The death rate from 2018 to 2022 was nearly double that of any other large city, and higher than Appalachia during the prescription pill crisis, the Midwest at the height of rural meth labs or New York during the crack epidemic.


When fatalities began to rise from the synthetic opioid fentanyl, so potent that even minuscule doses are deadly, Baltimore’s response was hailed as a model. The city set ambitious goals, distributed Narcan widely, experimented with ways to steer people into treatment and boosted campaigns to alert the public.


Then city leaders became preoccupied with other crises, including gun violence and the pandemic. Many efforts to fight overdoses stalled, an examination by The New York Times and The Baltimore Banner found.


Health officials publicly shared less data. City Council members rarely addressed the growing number of overdoses. The fact that the city’s status became worse than any other of its size was not known to the mayor, the deputy mayor — who had been the health commissioner — or multiple council members until they were recently shown data compiled by reporters.


Since 2020, officials have set fewer and less ambitious goals for overdose prevention. A task force managing the crisis once met monthly but convened only twice in 2022 and three times in 2023. Fewer people were being revived by emergency workers, fewer people were getting medication to curb their opioid addiction through Medicaid and fewer people were in publicly funded treatment programs.


Mayor Brandon Scott defended the city’s response. “This is an issue that we’re doing a lot of work on and that we can and will do more work on,” he said, “but we also know requires a lot, lot more resources” than the city has.


Other city leaders and health experts reacted with alarm. It’s “really shocking,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former Baltimore health commissioner and now a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, adding that the deaths were “unprecedented in the city’s history.”


Nationally, fentanyl is increasingly landing in the hands of teens, worrying providers who say treatment options for youths are limited., .


The Washington Post reports that fentanyl has largely fueled a more than doubling of overdose deaths among children ages 12 to 17 since the start of the pandemic, found an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released this month.


Physicians report a rise in young people who took opioids arriving to emergency rooms. Addiction specialists say the number of teens seeking help for opioid use is spiking — especially among Latinos.


Experts said the surge reflects a collision between adolescents’ natural drive to experiment, a decline in teen mental health and an increase in the availability and potency of counterfeit pills that mimic the appearance of prescription medications, making the experimentation that is a hallmark of adolescence more dangerous.

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