Deaths in Harford County this year related to overdoses of heroin and other opioids soared past the total for all of 2016 in the past week, and the problem is expected to get even worse, the county Sheriff's Office reported.
With more than four months left in 2017, the Sheriff's Office said there were 299 reported overdoses as of Tuesday, 59 of them fatal. That tally included 11 opioid related overdoses in the previous week, including one fatality.
The agency recorded 56 fatalities from 290 overdoses in 2016. There were 201 overdoses, 27 of them fatal, in 2015, according to spokesperson Kyle Andersen.
"With four months remaining in 2017, we have already surpassed the number of total and fatal overdoses for all of 2016," the Sheriff's Office posted on its Facebook page Monday evening. "If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, help is available."
The Sheriff's Office expects the overdose toll to increase in the future because of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil being mixed with heroin.
"The risk of experiencing an opioid related overdose has increased tremendously and the opportunity to reverse the effects of an overdose has been reduced," Andersen stated in an email.
The Sheriff's Office has received toxicology reports from the state's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on 33 of the 59 people who have died from suspected overdoses this year. Thirty of those reports indicate either fentanyl or carfentanil were in the victims' system when they died, Andersen said.
"Synthetic opioid derivatives have become a game changer," he said. "There is always hope we will begin to see a decrease in the lives impacted by opioids, but tragically the trend is moving in the wrong direction."
The Sheriff's Office Facebook post also gives the website www.samhsa.gov/find-help, which is operated by the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and provides search links to treatment programs through ZIP Codes.
"Recovery is real; a life can be saved and a future realized when there is time," Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said in an emailed statement Tuesday. "There is hope in every life we save from addiction or every young person we are able to turn away from drugs."
The sheriff, who has been in office since late 2014, stressed "the goal was and always will be to save lives first."
Agency officials are also working to target and arrest drug dealers and handle nonviolent property crimes caused by drug users with "innovative and evidence-based solutions to tackle chronic crime problems in Harford County," Gahler said.
"I think our efforts have shone success and will continue to do so," he said. "Every life is important, and we will continue to work hard to address substance abuse at every opportunity."
Gahler leads the HOPE for Harford, or Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort, work group, which was started in 2015. He and the HOPE members plan to make an announcement in the coming weeks about a new "education, prevention and awareness effort," Andersen, the sheriff's spokesperson, said.
"This effort is a continuation of our efforts refined to make an impact where our assessments indicate a need," he said. "Although the final details are not ready to be released, the sheriff is looking forward to adding one more tool to the fight against the opioid epidemic."
Andersen noted the Sheriff's Office "rigorously" assesses the results of initiatives to reduce crime and drug addiction.
"Our focus has always been to target the suppliers and local dealers and not to lock up the user," he said. "Our efforts have also been to dissuade new users through education."
"Harford County is working with the Governor's Opioid Operational Command Center (OOCC) on local efforts to address the opioid crisis," Dr. Russell Moy, who has been Harford County's acting health officer since July 1, said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
Moy said the Opioid Intervention Team has been developing plans to reduce the number of opioid deaths in Harford. He said the team is a "multidisciplinary" effort involving representatives of the local health, law enforcement, emergency management, the justice system, human services and education, as well as other sectors.
"Plans include increasing the distribution of naloxone as a life-saving measure, as well as the establishment of a central intake system for improving people's first point of contact with the health care system, thereby enhancing early identification and intervention for those with substance use disorders," Moy said.
The Sheriff's Office began tracking overdose calls to the county's 911 Center at the beginning of 2015 and began sending narcotics detectives to such calls in hopes of gathering information on sources of supply.
The agency also was forced to face the reality that its personnel frequently arrived before medical help, so road deputies and detectives have been trained to administer the drug naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opioids.
The Sheriff's Office was able to enhance its statistical gathering efforts last fall when University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, which operates Harford County's two hospitals, agreed to begin providing information on overdose cases received at its emergency rooms.
"As the opioid problem continues to grow across Harford County, Maryland, and the United States, police agencies need to continually seek out new strategies and methods to combat the problem," Andersen said. "The Harford County Sheriff's Office has not become stagnant in our efforts to rid our communities of opioids."
Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this report.