Heroin: The top story of 2017 in Harford County

The heroin epidemic continued to plague Harford County in 2017 and just 45 minutes into the new year recorded its first fatal overdose.

By mid-August, with 59 heroin and opioid-related deaths and still four months to go in 2017, Harford surpassed its 2016 fatal overdose total of 56.

By mid-December, 424 heroin and opioid-related overdoses were reported in Harford, 78 of them fatal. In 2016, 289 total overdoses were reported.

The numbers are going in the wrong direction, and the Sheriff's Office and Harford County Task Force continues to fight the opioid epidemic with every tool available, Kyle Andersen, public information specialist for the sheriff's office, said at the end of November.

"The tragic rise in the number of our friends and family members experiencing an overdose is proof that we must keep up the pressure," Andersen said. "The fight against opioid addiction is truly a team effort and we must all prepare for a long and hard fight."

Harford also saw its first fatal overdose involving carfentanil, a synthetic opioid that's 10,000 times more potent than morphine and according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, another synthetic opioid that has made its way into the county and is linked to many recent overdose deaths.

"We're not surprised. We knew it was coming. Now it is here," Cristie Kahler, public information officer for the Sheriff's Office, said of the carfentanel related death in early May. At least three other overdoses involving carfentanil have been reported since.

The dangers of opioids went beyond those who abuse them in May when a Harford sheriff's deputy and two emergency medical responders were treated for overdose symptoms after possibly being exposed to heroin and fentanyl while responding to a call.

"Every time we walk into a room, building, we don't know what we're going t o encounter. It's a whole level of something new," Richard Gardiner, spokesman for the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association, said.

Naloxone, a drug that counteracts the effects of opioids, was administered to the deputy, who began to feel ill and experienced symptoms consistent with an opioid exposure: dizziness and a rapid heart rate, the Sheriff's Office said.

The deputy and the EMS responders, who were not administered Narcan, were taken to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, where they were treated and released.

A month earlier, the Sheriff's Office adjusted some its policies to protect police who are responding to calls because of the potential danger heroin poses to the deputies handling it.

Rather than have deputies test heroin or synthetic drug samples in the field, trained detectives began testing every sample of heroin or synthetic opioid at one facility that has an air filtration system.

While one deputy from the narcotics division tests the drug, "a narcotics detective is with him with multiple doses of Narcan in case they'd have an accidental exposure."

Law enforcement officers also began carrying more powerful doses of naloxone, which is also sold under the brand name Narcan.

Deputies began carrying two doses of four ounces each that are nasal inhalers, much easier to administer than the two, one-ounce doses that, with multiple parts, were complex and time-consuming to put together before they could be administered through the nose.

"It's strictly because of safety. We don't want our deputies, or any officer around the county, that are first responders on the scene to be field testing in an open environment," Capt. Lee Dunbar of the Harford County Task Force said. "It poses a huge health risk."

A bit of carfentanil the size of a grain of salt could kill someone if it's airborne and is ingested.

By the year's end, Narcan was on hand at the county's libraries and public school nurse stations, and residents and community organizations were being offered free training on how to administer it.

One of the new tools the Sheriff's Office introduced in 2017 in its ongoing effort to slow heroin-opioid abuse is H.O.P.E. House, a mobile drug prevention education center designed to raise awareness and inform parents of the warning signs of controlled dangerous substance use and/or abuse.

Inside the trailer, which is outfitted to mimic rooms of a home and was developed by Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler's H.O.P.E. (Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort) workgroup, parents are able to about signs that may indicate a loved one is abusing heroin or other drugs.

Other efforts to combat the epidemic include other showings of the play "Addicted," produced by the North Harford High School drama department, which featured recovering addicts who stepped forward to help others in recovery.

Harford young people also joined the fight, creating videos warning their peers of the dangers of drug addiction that were shown in local movie theaters.

The first set was released in June followed by another round in September.

"Through this contest, we invited young people to submit the messages the way they wanted to express them and the way they felt would reach their peers," a county government spokesperson said.

In their winning video, siblings Emily, Allison, Benjamin and William Dietz "didn't just want to have a couple faces telling you that doing drugs is wrong," Emily said. "We wanted to have a couple faces acting out the story of why drug abuse is detrimental."

A 30-second spot introduced in September features Mara Finnegan, 11, of Forest Hill, who lost her sister to heroin on Christmas Day 2015.

In May, the county erected its third anti-heroin billboard. While the first two were aimed at raising awareness of heroin abuse and its potential to involve children as young as middle school age, the third one was aimed at a very specific demographic – student athletes – and that treating injuries with prescription painkillers can lead to heroin addiction.

A former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who during his term released a report on opiates and addiction that emphasized that dependency on opioids and other substances must not be viewed as a character flaw, spoke at Bel Air High School in September. He was part of a panel discussion and question-and-answer session that was just one of the new and cutting edge ways the county was addressing the heroin epidemic.

Law enforcement also got more aggressive in fighting the epidemic.

While Gahler has long said the county can't "arrest its way out of the epidemic," it can use more tools to go after the drug dealers who are providing the deadly drugs being used in Harford County.

An Aberdeen man was charged in November under a new state law that tacks up to 10 years onto any conviction for distributing a mixture of heroin and fentanyl or fentanyl alone. He is also the first suspected heroin dealer charged at the state level with reckless endangerment in connection with a fatal overdose.

There are also new programs for inmates at the Harford County Detention Center, the Adult Opiate Recovery Court was created, state and county funds have been dedicated to recovery efforts, new legislation has been passed on sentencing dealers and heroin coordinators have been introduced around the state, according to Gahler.

At year's end, Harford County Public Schools was considering a new policy that would allow all employees to give naloxone to any person suffering from an opioid-related overdose at a county school.

All schools already have two sets of naloxone in them, one carried by the nurse and the other in the case that holds the school's automated external defibrillator. The next step is to train everyone in the building in how to administer naloxone, training that includes a free dose.

"All are glimmers of hope that we are making progress. Education and awareness has taken the stigma out of heroin and allowed us to have relevant and productive conversations," Gahler said.

Early in 2017, County Executive Barry Glassman said his administration's extensive efforts to raise awareness of the heroin epidemic would continue. Even though overdose numbers were discouraging, he said in an interview with The Aegis, "I still think we can save the younger kids."

"We can't put our heads in the sand," Glassman said. "This is a caring county, we help each other. We take the good with the bad."

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