Flags in Md. and Va. at half-staff for overdose awareness

The governors of Maryland and Virginia ordered flags at half-staff Wednesday in honor of International Overdose Awareness Day, observed to remember people around the world who have lost their lives to drug overdoses and to help raise awareness regarding the ongoing opioid crisis.

“The disease of addiction affects all Maryland communities, and I invite all Marylanders to join me in honoring the lives we have lost,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. “It is my sincerest hope raising awareness will help others on their recovery journeys.”

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he ordered flags at half-staff “in memory of those who lost their lives,” and encouraged “recovery and treatment for those still suffering from addiction.”

Deaths from overdoses skyrocketed during the pandemic. More than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 2021 total translates to roughly one U.S. overdose death every five minutes, and it marked a 15% increase from the previous record, set in 2020.

Experts said the pandemic exacerbated drug problems as lockdowns and other restrictions isolated those with addictions and made treatment harder to get. Some people in recovery struggled to maintain sobriety, while others turned to drugs to cope.

“Unfortunately, we’re still seeing a rise in synthetic opioid deaths, specifically fentanyl,” said Dr. Paul Christo, a pain specialist and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

U.S. overdose deaths have risen most years for more than two decades. The increase began in the 1990s with overdoses involving opioid painkillers, followed by waves of deaths led by other opioids like heroin and — most recently — illicit fentanyl.

Last year, overdoses involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed 71,000, up 23% from the year before. There also was a 23% increase in deaths involving cocaine and a 34% increase in deaths involving meth and other stimulants.

“It’s been a continued escalation after the pandemic, so we really haven’t seen much slowing related to overdose deaths,” Christo said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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