County Tackles Opioid Epidemic

Photo | Submitted Corey Hassett, The Freedom Center’s director of community outreach and Quince Orchard High School class of 2006, sorts through donated clothing.

Photo | Submitted
Corey Hassett, The Freedom Center’s director of community outreach and Quince Orchard High School class of 2006, sorts through donated clothing.

County Executive Marc Elrich, and County Council Public Safety Chair Sidney Katz joined members of the Montgomery County Opioid Intervention Team (OIT) at a Rockville press event on Oct. 18 to announce the latest news in the fight against the lethal epidemic.

With 49 overdose deaths in 2019 through mid-October in Montgomery County, and including seven in September, Elrich noted a decline in deaths from the same period in 2018. “… But this is not a happy event. There are still far too many overdoses,” he said.

Elrich said the county utilizes holistic approaches including prevention, education and treatment. “We have increased the amount of naloxone and it is helping to save lives—but it is not fixing the use disorder problem.” Naloxone (trade name “Narcan”) is an opioid antagonist. The medication can reverse opioid overdose.

Montgomery County offers public Narcan training with free Narcan supplies in sessions on Nov. 26, Dec. 20 and Jan. 28. Preregistration is required. See the Montgomery County “Know the Risks” opioid information website for more information: KnowtheRisksMC.org

Speaking on behalf of the County Council, Public Safety Committee Chair Sidney Katz (District 3, Gaithersburg) said, “We are very aware of the scope of the issue, and we also are encouraged with the many ways in which we are responding to the crisis—but that doesn’t mean we have done enough. That doesn’t mean we will stop. We will continue.” 

One community-based treatment provider, The Freedom Center in Gaithersburg, was founded in 2018 by three Quince Orchard High School alumnae, each in recovery from substance use disorder and looking to give back to the community. 

Profiled in The Town Courier a year ago, The Freedom Center is a substance abuse rehab center that provides individualized, intensive outpatient treatment and offers a sober residential option. “We are busy,” said James Scribner (class of 2004), executive director. He added that the majority of clients suffer from opioid use disorder and benefit from treatment that addresses both their substance use disorders and co-existing mental health diagnoses. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. is in the third wave of an epidemic of opioid drug overdose deaths that killed 700,000 people from 1999 to 2017 and continues today. The third wave began in 2013, with big increases in overdose deaths from illicitly manufactured fentanyl and dozens of chemically similar synthetic opioids that drug dealers combine with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, counterfeit pills and other substances. 

“Montgomery County has been working on the growing challenge of opioid addiction and overdose since late 2016,” Raymond L. Crowel, OIT cochair and Health and Human Services director, said in a Nov. 4 email. “The focus of the OIT has been on four fronts: public awareness and education, harm reduction, treatment and recovery and coordination of service.” 

Crowel said some progress has been made over the last five years because of a decline in deaths due to prescription opioids and a decline in deaths due to heroin, the first two “waves” of the opioid epidemic. 

“Unfortunately, the increasing presence of illegally imported fentanyl places the public at greater risk,” he added. “Because of its potency fentanyl has become the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in the county.” Crowel said the addition of fentanyl to fake prescription pills and other illicit substances further complicates matters. 

“When users do not know the strength of what they are using or are unaware of the presence of fentanyl, they are at greater risk of overdose. Last week we received fentanyl (test) strips and we are in the process of making them available to those who are at risk of overdose in the hopes that it will save lives. We’re distributing them through providers and peer recovery specialists, both those associated with our STEER team and peer specialists working in community-based treatment programs.” 

Montgomery County’s STEER team, which brings together many county resources and departments wrestling with the opioid epidemic in a unified effort to Stop, Triage, Engage, Educate and Rehabilitate, now has four peer specialists on call 24 hours a day. STEER peer specialists are summoned at the time an overdose is reversed, to assist the affected individual in finding a path to treatment. 

Responding to a question from The Town Courier, Crowel said it is difficult to gauge public awareness of the problem. The county holds public forums, educational sessions, training—and supplies naloxone to the public. Much information can be found on the county’s extensive website: KnowtheRisksMC.org

The messaging will continue, Crowel said, but “one challenge is that people are often not focused on these messages until it becomes personal, impacting friends or family.”

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