President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency on Thursday, as substance abuse deaths continue to soar across the country and in Maryland. So far in 2017, 1,029 people in the state have died from opioid-related causes, and Howard County continues to make up an increasing number of those deaths.
The number of opioid-related deaths in Howard County between January and June this year spiked by over 50 percent compared to the same time frame in 2016, according to state data released this week. The death toll rose from 18 deaths in the first six months of 2016 to 28 in 2017.
Twenty-one of those deaths are the result of fentanyl-related causes, compared to 12 deaths in the first half of last year. Fentanyl, which has become an increasing concern to law enforcement, is a much more potent drug used to cut heroin that can lead to more frequent fatal overdoses, according to Howard County Health Officer Maura Rossman.
The county is on track to blow past its total number of opioid-related deaths for the year compared to 2016, when 40 people died from opioid-related causes. In the first half of 2017, already 28 died from opioid-related causes, with the numbers still climbing.
The report’s release comes days before national Drug Take Back day on Oct. 28, during which jurisdictions across the country will collect unwanted and unused prescription drugs. In Howard County, HC DrugFree and the police department are teaming up to host a drug take back drive-through at Wilde Lake Village Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
At the last drug take back in April, HC DrugFree collected 1,126.6 pounds of medication, and also collected 13 bins full of used needles, syringes and epipens. Once the drugs are collected, they’re brought to Howard County General Hospital, where they are properly disposed of with medical waste.
Residents can also dispose of drugs any day of the year at one of the police department’s disposal boxes at the Northern District station in Ellicott City and the Southern District station in North Laurel.
Rossman said it’s important for people to properly dispose of expired medications because of the risk they pose if taken, since the potency of expired pills is unknown.
Leaving prescription medications in the home also increases the chance they could be abused by someone. Eighty-six percent of young, injection drug users said that prior to using heroin they had abused opioid pain relievers, and that their main source of the drugs was from family, friends or personal prescriptions, according to a survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“We want [the drugs] out of the home because we do not want to make it easy for youth to try prescription pain meds for the first time at home,” said HC DrugFree Executive Director Joan Webb Scornaienchi. “We don’t want them to have that easy access. If you just can get it out of your home.”
Beyond Saturday’s event, county law enforcement and administrators continue to strategize new ways to combat the crisis.
Beginning on Oct. 23, the police department began posting the daily number of fatal and non-fatal overdoses it responded to as part of its daily crime bulletin. In the first four days of the practice there were three non-fatal overdoses, and one fatal overdose, according to police data.
County officials are working to train more staff in how to use the opioid antidote Naloxone that can bring someone back to life from an overdose. Rossman said plans are underway to train every county employee, with the goal to train everyone by January 2018, and that all county buildings will soon begin storing Naloxone doses in automated external defibrillator boxes .
Meanwhile, Seante' Hunt, the county’s opioid misuse prevention coordinator and overdose response program coordinator, is leading the county’s charge to train more residents in Naloxone. Since fiscal 2018 began in July, she’s trained 628 people; last year she trained 715 in total. The county has trained nearly 2,000 people since it began offering the trainings in 2015, according to Rossman.
“The more people that are able to use Naloxone, the greater potential to save a life,” she said.