Baltimore County launches working group on opioid epidemic

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The Baltimore County Courthouse. Photo by James G. Howes, via Wikipedia.

Baltimore County has assembled a working group of medical professionals to develop a strategy for combating the opioid crisis, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced today.

The group will solicit public feedback through an online survey and two community meetings, and then devise a plan for tackling the crisis.

As Olszewski noted, Baltimore County ranked second in overdose-related deaths in Maryland, according to newly released figures. Of the 2,114 opioid-related deaths in the state, 348 happened in Baltimore County, up from 323 in 2017.

“By any measure, this is truly a crisis, and it’s one that does not discriminate,” Olszewski Jr.  said today at a press conference. “It affects every community across our nation and across our county, every neighborhood. And we have a moral imperative to do all that we can to fight back and respond to it.”

Members of the group are: Dr. John Chessare, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center; Dr. Michelle Gourdine, interim chief medical officer at the University of Maryland Medical System; Dr. Sunil Khushalani, medical director of adult services at Sheppard Pratt Health System; Dawn O’Neill, vice president of population health at Saint Agnes Hospital; Michelle Spencer, associate director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Dr. Christopher Welsh, medical director of outpatient addiction treatment services at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The group will also receive technical assistance from the county’s Department of Health and Hopkins’ Bloomberg American Health Initiative, directed by former Maryland health secretary Joshua Sharfstein.

At the press conference, Sharfstein said the online survey would last about six weeks and the public meetings would be held in June 18 and July 10. After that, the group will assemble a report that should be released around September. (The survey is available here in English and Spanish.)

“So really this is not a prolonged, ‘let’s take years to come up with a strategy,'” he said. “This is a very focused moment for people to provide input and be able to come up with strategic recommendations that then we hope will able to be implemented.”

Following his time in state government, Sharfstein has worked in Rhode Island, Delaware, West Virginia and Louisiana to help develop plans for battling opioid addiction. He said the first step was confronting the problem and not trying to sweep it under the rug, something the county is doing with this plan.

The next steps include drawing on the resources of the county and developing evidence-based solutions, he said.

The director of Baltimore County’s Department of Health, Dr. Gregory Branch, said it was especially important to start a dialogue with people who have battled addiction and their families.

“We recognize that they suffer from this illness,” he said. “We recognize that when they have a person who has died, or they have a person who is affected by this illness, it affects the whole family, it affects the whole community, it affects the whole county and country.”

Olszewski’s transition team also recommended appointing an opioid strategy coordinator, a position the county executive said he has budgeted for in 2020.

This working group will allow the county to accelerate its response to opioid addiction, he said.

“Any life that we can prevent being lost is worth saving,” he said.

Brandon Weigel

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