A year of opioid tragedies, and signs of hope

A year of opioid tragedies, and signs of hope
Dana Belkov dances as Carlos Gautier of Prospekt & Los performs during the first Addiction and Recovery MusicFest at the Carroll County Agricultural Center in Westminster July 15, 2017. (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Deaths and overdoses related to opioid drugs continued to climb in Carroll County in 2017 even as various initiatives to combat addiction and its related tragedies saw some success.

The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office keeps a count of fatal and nonfatal overdoses by substance, and while these statistics are as incomplete for 2017 — they run only through November, and are somewhat provisional as some cases have yet to be investigated by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — they nevertheless sketch a grim picture.


Carroll saw 43 fatalities related to drugs and alcohol from January through November of 2017, up from 34 in 2016.

Of those deaths, 32 were related to opioids of some sort, be it heroin, the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl or prescription opioid medications, up from 16 such cases in 2016, according to the sheriff’s office statistics. Nonfatal overdoses were up as well, with 215 nonfatal heroin overdoses in 2017 to 161 in 2016.

A tough year

From almost the outset, 2017 got off on the wrong foot, with seven overdoses inside two hours being reported on Friday, Jan. 27, in Westminster. This prompted the Carroll County Health Department to issue a "Community Overdose Alert" warning about the presence of the drugs.

"If you or someone you know uses illegal drugs, please be aware that using these extra potent drugs may lead to an overdose, even when used in small amounts," the health department’s messaging went. "If you are with someone who overdoses, call 911. Administer naloxone if you are trained."

And in April, reports of a new synthetic opioid drug showing up on the black market in Maryland had officials worried about a new rash of overdoses that could be difficult to reverse with the opioid antidote medication naloxone. Carfentanil, even more potent than than fentanyl, had been linked to deaths in Frederick and Anne Arundel counties.

This had Sheriff Jim DeWees worried, as he told the Times he was already concerned enough with the presence of fentanyl, itself many times more potent than heroin or morphine.

"When it comes to victims of it; if someone is using it, it's not a matter of if, but when it kills you," he said. "The other things is: What if our deputies come into contact with it?"

Beginnings of hope

But Carroll County was not entirely on the defensive when it came to opioids in 2017.

In February, the State’s Attorney’s Office launched its Major Overdose Initiative, which tracked people who had overdosed multiple times and approached them with offers to get them into treatment.

"We have a major offender unit that focuses on our worst offenders," State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo said at the time. "The mindset was, let's apply that same mentality to overdoses."

By April, DeLeonardo said that the major overdose initiative, in combination with other efforts from his office, and managed to direct 80 people into treatment since roughly November 2015.

In March, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan fulfilled a campaign promise and declared a state of emergency over the opioid epidemic, pledging an additional $10 million in funding every year for the next five years.

"We need to treat this crisis the exact same way we treat any other state emergency," Hogan said at a news conference at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "This is actually about taking an all-hands-on-deck approach so that together we can save the lives of thousands of Marylanders.


In July, the first Addiction and Recovery Awareness Musicfest brought MTV personality Brandon Novak, among other acts, to the Carroll County Farm Museum to raise funds for addiction recovery efforts.


“We have so many people supporting, and there’s never been anything else like it in the area,” Jesse Tomlin, a co-founder of the festival who is also in recovery, said at the time. “An event like this helps spread awareness, and it shows that recovery is definitely not boring. We do go out and have fun.”

Everyday heroes

It was revealed in 2017 that Carroll County Public Library staff have been trained in administering naloxone in addition to serving up knowledge — and that librarians in Westminster had used naloxone to save lives in the library. Library associates Maureen Aversa and Laura Rice responded to a call over the intercom and found a young woman unconscious from a drug overdose in the library bathroom.

“Our training kicked in and we put our kit together,” Aversa said. “We were able to bring her back.”

Aversa told the Times in August that whether it’s helping children find a book or helping someone find health resources, or even saving their life, it’s all part of working at the library.

“We are there to meet their needs. If that need happens to be mental health interventions or dealing with addictions, that’s what we’re there for,” she said. “Part of my job is to say, ‘Hey, are you OK today?’ It’s just part of what we do.”