For the first time in several years, the number of drug and alcohol overdose fatalities in Carroll County at the outset of summer is lower than the total at this time the year prior.
There were a total of 30 drug or alcohol overdoses in Carroll County in May, according to the latest statistics available from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. There were 35 overdoses in May 2018, 32 in May 2017 and 32 in May 2016, according to a Sheriff’s Office report.
A similar decline holds for the fatal overdoses in May. There were three such deaths in May 2016, four in May 2017, six in May 2018 and two in May this year, according to the report.
While such a short time frame is just one slice of time, and there are other less favorable statistics — May did see an increase of one overdose compared to the 29 seen in April — longer-term trends do show a decrease in overdoses as well.
The first five months of 2019 saw a total of 160 overdoses, 20 of which were fatal, according to the Sheriff’s Office report, whereas in the first five months of 2018 there were 251 overdoses, 39 of which were fatal.
Breaking out overdoses associated with particular substances also indicates downward trends.
Heroin-related deaths decreased from seven in the first five months of 2018 to four in the first five months of 2019. And as for deaths related to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid blamed by health and law enforcement officials for so many deaths nationwide, the first five months of 2018 saw 20 such deaths in Carroll. January through May of 2019 saw eight.
But local officials are not declaring the battle won just yet, and interviews emphasized the need to keep pushing a message of prevention and cooperation to maintain the downward trend lines.
“I think it’s a good sign. I am certainly not going to complain that numbers are going down,” said Ed Singer, health officer at the Carroll County Health Department. “But I am certainly not ready to claim victory and move on.”
For one thing, Singer said, even year-over-year trends are a relatively short period of time, given that the resurgence of opioid addiction has now been taking place for years.
For another, fentanyl has been such a powerful wild card, capable of producing a rash of overdoses in a short period of time, that it has made gauging the success of prevention efforts difficult, according to Singer.
“The fentanyl thing put a huge spike in our numbers even though I thought we were making a lot of progress with the number of people we had engaged in treatment,” he said. “Had the drugs not changed to the point that they were as deadly as they had become in the last couple of years, I think the trends may had turned sooner.”
Even though the figures for this May were down year-over-year overall, there were some notable short-term spikes in reported overdoses.
The Health Department sent out an alert the morning of May 17 warning that there had been at least five suspected overdoses over a 24-hour period in Carroll County — though it wasn’t clear whether that was attributable to fentanyl specifically.
And earlier in May, the Health Department issued an overdose alert when a wave of drugs was suspected to have moved through the county over the weekend of May 4. That weekend, 11 overdoses were reported, though the specifics of each weren’t known.
Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees said he is cautiously optimistic that current downward trends reflect the promise of further decreases in overdoses, and are perhaps a sign that messaging is finally getting through to people.
“We went through this in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, where we were just getting hammered and responding to overdose after overdose,” he said. “But the constant reminding people that ‘it’s going to kill you,’ we hope that education piece is starting to sink in.”
An encouraging sign, DeWees noted, has been seeing his deputies respond to more and more calls where people might have had overdoses or been in some other type of mental health and drug-related crisis, but are alive and breathing when police arrive.
“We can get them to a hospital and get them services and treatment, where historically we have been administering naloxone, or someone is dead,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean the Sheriff’s Office will stop targeted arrests of drug dealers or stop communicating the dangers of using opioids.
“We’re not raising our hands in victory,” DeWees said. “We will continue to pound the message into people’s heads — this will kill you — and do everything possible to get people into treatment so they are not statistics.”