Harford's opioid epidemic far worse than a year ago

ebutler@theaegis.com

Harford County surpassed 400 heroin overdoses this year during the week of Thanksgiving when there were 11 overdoses, two of them fatal, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Last year’s Thanksgiving holiday was even more deadly, when five people died in five days of heroin overdoses.

As of Monday, 408 people have overdosed on heroin or other opioids this year, with 79 of them fatal. Those figures are far ahead of the same time last year, when 246 overdoses had been reported, 48 of them fatal.

Last year, Harford recorded 289 heroin/opioid overdoses, 55 of them fatal, according to statistics from the Sheriff’s Office.

Harford braced in May for the arrival of carfentanil, the synthetic opioid that's 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl. An overdose victim’s toxicology report tested positive for the drug in May, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

As the end of 2017 nears and more people than ever will die of a heroin or opioid overdose in Harford, the fight against the epidemic continues.

In the Town of Bel Air, where the number of overdoses — both fatal and non-fatal — have more than doubled this year over last year, police are working with a number of community groups to provide resources for addicts and their families.

“This town has a reputation that it has a great quality of life, it’s a great place to shop, it’s a great place to raise a family,” Town Administrator Jesse Bane said. “And when you get something like this that suddenly rears its ugly head, we need to do something about that so that not only are we looking to keep that quality of life here and that reputation that we enjoy, but to take those people who live in our town that are dealing with those issues and doing something to help them.”

Officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground are also offering assistance to local law enforcement agencies and government leaders in the county. in response to the increasing number of overdoses.

“We are here to help,” Col. Ivan Montanez told Aberdeen’s mayor and City Council during Monday evening’s meeting.

Opioid overdose reduction effort

So far in 2017, five fatal and 27 non-fatal overdoses have been reported within Bel Air town limits. That’s up from two fatal and 12 non-fatal in all of 2016, according to statistics provided by Police Chief Charles Moore.

His officers have been responding to the overdoses and trying to help victims, but often times they’re going back out to the same addicts for repeated overdoses.

One officer, Cpl. Michael Guillion, provided Narcan to one addict three times in one day earlier this year, Moore said.

That becomes very frustrating for his officers and himself, he said.

There are lots of meetings, lots of plans, lots of talking, but nothing is being done to provide help now, Moore said.

And he’s looking at numbers that continue to increase.

“As police chief, you have to do something,” Moore said.

He is modeling a new effort in the Town of Bel Air after one in Cumberland in Allegany County and using existing resources to help addicts.

Among those resources is the Harford Office of Drug Control Policy, which has been led by Joe Ryan for 18 years, as well as the nonprofit Family and Children’s Services (FCS).

“I’ve asked them to be the coordinators, the directors, if you will,” Moore said. “Police and law enforcement can’t solve this problem.”

FCS, however, knows what resources are available and can bring them together to help addicts, Moore said.

While the police department will address the heroin problem from a law enforcement standpoint, FCS and other agencies can tackle it from a therapeutic standpoint, not only for addicts, but also for their families and loved ones, too, F.T. Burden, CEO of Family and Children’s Services, said.

“We are pulling resources together to come up with a plan to do something right now,” Burden said.

In addition to providing immediate treatment, FCS can help with education and community resources, he said. Almost all addicts are driven to self-medicate because of mental health challenges or some type of trauma, he said.

His agency, which has been in Harford for years, is expanding its behavioral health services to provide medicinal and psychiatric treatment, he said.

“When families are experiencing issues, a person is in crisis, when they come out of the fog and say now where do I go, what do I do from here,” FCS can help, Burden said.

The first step in this new program in Bel Air is to get the addict, who must be a Bel Air resident, into recovery mode. Within 24 to 48 hours of an overdose, a Bel Air Police officer will accompany a counselor on a follow-up visit to the victim to start the counseling process then, Moore said.

“We’ll see what we can do to get them on the road to recovery,” he said.

The second part of the program provides help to families and friends of a Bel Air resident who is an addict “spiraling down and could end up on the road to death. They don’t know where to go to get assistance,” Moore said.

Working together, Healthy Harford, the Department of Social Services, Harford County Circuit Court, Harford County Health Department and the Office of Mental Health, they will try to find some help for them.

“We really want to treat it as a public health crisis and not a law enforcement issue,” Bane said. “And if we say it’s a public health crisis, we have to treat it that way. The Town of Bel Air is buying into that and seriously tackling the issue.”

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office and Harford County Task Force continue to fight the opioid epidemic with every tool available, Kyle Andersen, public information specialist for the sheriff’s office, said.

“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.”

Sheriff’s office efforts

The community has worked hard to understand the power of addiction and the impact it has.

“We must, and Sheriff [Jeffrey] Gahler is confident we will, stay the course and not accept addiction, but take every opportunity to help those in need while keeping our neighborhoods safe,” Andersen said.

Opioids kill more people in Harford County than car accidents and homicides combined, and the Sheriff’s Office realized three years ago the status quo was not going to save lives.

“We needed to look at new tools to combat a growing problem. We have made sure the opioid scourge has not been normalized in Harford County, but remains a topic of discussion in almost all households,” he said.

The agency has nationally recognized response protocols, innovative investigative practices, lifesaving efforts, awareness campaigns and now a unique educational opportunity directed at early intervention, Andersen said.

The HOPE House, developed by Gahler and his HOPE workgroup, is another effort to attack opioid usage and deaths. It has been very visible in the community and well received. Hundreds of individuals have learned of potential warning signs via this powerful tool.

“One life saved or keeping one person from using for the first time is a win,” Andersen said.

The agency’s blueprint has been built with community support and is tailored to the citizens who are struggling to deal with opioid addiction and death while attacking the sources of opioids and their financial support.

“Our strategy seemed somewhat outrageous when first introduced, but it has shown promise and continues to evolve with the help of Harford County residents,” Gahler has said. “The stories of recovery made available by the efforts of our first responders relayed to me while in the community solidify my resolve to continue with our effective strategies and work on those things feeding addiction and hurting our communities.”

APG, DoD help

APG’s help comes on the heels of the National Opioid Crisis Community Summit at APG’s Edgewood Area and soldiers’ participation in Harford County’s second annual Night of Conversation earlier this month.

Montanez said Maj. Gen. Randy Taylor, APG’s senior commander, has assigned him to “get involved as [far as] bringing us into the community to work with the community.”

He said he has met recently with Aberdeen Police Chief Henry Trabert, Joe Ryan, manager of Harford County’s Office of Drug Control Policy and other county government leaders.

The opioid summit, which more than 300 people from across the state attended, showed “gaps” in communities’ response to the opioid crisis, according to Montanez. He said Army officials plan to work with municipal and county leaders to close those gaps, but they are “also looking for opportunities where we can help and assist, from APG’s perspective, to address this issue.”

Mayor Patrick McGrady encouraged Montanez to “give our regards to the commanding general.”

“We appreciate his attention to our community right outside the gate,” McGrady said.

City Manager Randy Robertson said there are more than 16,000 cities and counties in the U.S.

“We’re the only one that is blessed, as far as I know, to have the resources of the United States Army and Department of Defense in terms of some of the most advanced medical opportunities,” Robertson said.

He said Montanez is “a synergy” to bring resources together, that he will meet with Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, and he has already met with representatives of the medical community in Harford County and the Johns Hopkins health system in Baltimore.

“In time, we’re hoping that this could be a fusion, that we might be a model for other counties and cities across the United States of bringing Army resources to the issues at hand, so I want personally thank you,” Robertson told Montanez.

Martha Meehan-Cohen, director of advancement for Ashley Addiction Treatment in Havre de Grace, told Aberdeen officials about Ashley’s economic and social impact in Harford County.

Robertson said he invited Meehan-Cohen to City Hall Monday after he, the police chief and some of his senior commanders toured Ashley about three weeks ago. He said he thought “it would be a tremendous opportunity” for the mayor and council to learn more about the institution.

“We are really happy to be a part of the community,” Meehan-Cohen said. “We are very mission driven.”

Ashley is at 800 Tydings Lane, about 4 miles from Aberdeen City Hall. There are 100 beds in its inpatient treatment facility, and the institution operates two outpatient facilities.

The first facility at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air has the capacity to treat 150 patients every eight weeks, and the second facility at Union Hospital in Elkton can treat 130 patients every eight weeks, according to Meehan-Cohen.

More than 45,000 people have received inpatient treatment since Ashley was founded in 1983, according to Meehan-Cohen.

Ashley has awarded $42 million in scholarships for people who cannot afford to pay for treatment since the program started in 1998, Meehan-Cohen said.

Two “scholarship beds,” which are “100 percent free,” are awarded to Harford County residents every month, she said.

“The [opioid] problem is immense here, as it is everywhere else, but you guys are our neighbors and we want to help as many people in Harford County as we can,” Meehan-Cohen said.

She said Ashley has 282 full-time employees, 174 who live in Harford County. The institution works with more than 100 vendors, 43 of which are in Harford – 12 of them are in Aberdeen.

Ashley’s programs help give a boost to Aberdeen’s hotels, according to Robertson, as people visiting patients on the Ashley campus cannot stay there overnight, so they go to Aberdeen.

“We all recognize the problems of addiction, not only in Harford County but in the region and in the United States generally, so keep it up,” McGrady told Meehan-Cohen.

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