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Olszewski Considers Opioid Czar to Deal With Baltimore County's High Death Rate

AP Photo/Patrick Sison

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski is considering appointing an Opioid Czar to be the point person as the county grapples with the second-highest rate of fatal opioid overdoses in Maryland. This comes as the county is being criticized for not doing enough to address a problem Olszewski says is ravaging parts of the county.




A few weeks ago, U. S. Senator Ben Cardin was telling Baltimore County Council members about how federal money flows to local opioid programs that are showing results.


Cardin said, “Baltimore County, don’t take this personally, is not known for a specific strategy to deal with the opioid crisis.” 


Council members voiced and nodded in agreement.


Della Leister, Baltimore County’s Deputy Health Officer, said if that’s what Cardin and the council members think, “Then that’s on us to get this word out. Because our staff are working their tails off.” 


Leister said the county has a multi-pronged program called REACH, which stands for Recovery, Education, Assessment, Collaboration and Help. A key component is staffers who will meet any time with clients and families to help them.


“We get calls from families all the time, looking for help, recently lost somebody and they have another child who might have an addiction and don’t want to lose them,” Leister said. “They are very hard calls to take.”


And here are the most recent numbers. During the first nine months of last year, 267 people died in Baltimore County due to opioids, up from 239 during the same months in 2017. That puts Baltimore County second in the state, behind Baltimore City.


Baltimore County Councilman David Marks said there are people who don’t want you to know that.


“There are some people who complain about an impact on communities, on property values, that sort of thing,” Marks said. “My response to that is if you go to Harford County, it’s a very fast growing jurisdiction. It certainly has not impacted the desirability or attractiveness of that county.”


Marks cited Harford because he said the county is making the opioids issue more front and center, posting signs with a running tally of how many people have died from an opioid overdose. Baltimore County officials said they’re working on the same thing, and County Executive Johnny Olszewski said he supports it.


State Senator Clarence Lam represents portions of Baltimore and Howard Counties and is one of three doctors in the Maryland legislature. He said Baltimore County officials have been in denial about the depths of the opioid crisis, buying into the narrative that it is a Baltimore City problem. 


“The crisis that we’re seeing when it comes to opioid addiction doesn’t end because of an artificial border at the city/county line,” Lam said.


The driver behind these fatalities is fentanyl. It’s a synthetic opioid that according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl is manufactured legally for pain relief so prescriptions are being abused. It’s being made illegally as well. It is highly addictive.


Meanwhile, Olszewski’s transition team is drawing up recommendations for how to strengthen the county’s battle against opioid addiction. He says the team’s final report is expected to propose, among other things, a point person to lead the county’s battle against opioid addiction.


Olszewski said he sees this opioid czar working with the health department, the police, and the schools.


“Really coordinating those resources, bringing together best practices, and making sure that we are staying laser focused on this because it is a big issue that’s ravaging many of our neighborhoods,” Olszewski said. 


That report is due later this month. 


On Wednesday, more about what Baltimore County is and is not providing for those who need help with their opioid addiction. Also, how a Baltimore County family is remembering the loss of a loved one to opioids by trying to help others before it’s too late.




John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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