April in Carroll County represented a continuing trend of decreasing drug and alcohol overdoses, though May has started with a spike, county health officials say.
The county has seen significantly lower numbers of overdoses and deaths in the first four months of 2019 compared with the same period in 2018. But the overall downward trend is marred by a periodic burst of overdoses that health officials blame on the presence of powerful drugs, such as fentanyl, contaminating the illegal drug supply.
Just such a wave of drugs, likely heroin, is believed to have moved through Carroll County over the weekend of May 4, prompting the Carroll County Health Department to issue an overdose alert.
“We had 11 overdoses over the weekend,” said Lisa Pollard, director of recovery services at the health department. “That’s the highest number of people we have seen over Friday to Sunday evening.”
As of Tuesday evening, the health department did not yet have information on how many, if any, of those overdoses proved to be fatal, Pollard said.
Frederick County and Baltimore City issued their own overdose alerts a few days prior, according to Sue Doyle, director of the bureau of prevention, wellness, and recovery at the health department.
“It looked like last week whatever came in came in the overall in the drug supply,” Doyle said. “We try to watch Baltimore City because they usually put those out three to four days before ours. We hold our breath: Are we going to make it through this one?”
That spike of 11 overdoses will change the trend lines once statistics for May are available in early June, but things had been looking better through April.
The total number of overdoses, fatal and nonfatal, in April was 28, a 30 percent decrease over the 40 such overdoses seen in March, according to Carroll County Sheriff’s Office statistics. In April 2018, there were 52 such overdoses.
Christine Garvin, sheriff’s office crime analyst, previously noted that the total overdoses in the first quarter this year — 98 — was a 72.7% decrease over overdoses in the first quarter of 2018 — 164.
That downward trend continued through April, though less steeply, with year-to-date overdose totals through April 2019 at 129 — compared to 216 through April 2018.
Fatal overdoses also decreased in the first four months of 2019, with 17, as compared to 33 deaths in that same time period in 2018. Heroin-related deaths dropped from six through April in 2018 to three deaths through the end of April in 2019. Even deaths related to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid, saw a decrease; 15 fentanyl-related deaths were recorded in the first four months of 2018, and seven have occurred through April in 2019.
But April does represent an uptick in deaths compared to March, with five deaths overall compared to four in March. And April 2019 has seen more deaths than the previous two Aprils — there were four deaths each in April 2018 and 2017. There were five deaths in April 2016.
Through the end of April, there have been three deaths this year associated with heroin, seven associated with fentanyl, one associated with other illegal drugs, and six due to an unknown substance pending investigation by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
What decreases there have been have been hard won through prevention and harm reduction efforts, but can also be difficult to measure, health officials say.
Cathy Baker, the local behavioral health authority at the health department, noted that messaging about the Maryland Good Samaritan law, which protects people from prosecution if they call for help when someone overdoses, seems to have led more people to call for help, leading to fewer deaths but, in some cases, an increase in the number of nonfatal overdoses reported.
And it’s not always clear that what was once thought a success will continue to work.
“We still need to be cautious,” Pollard said. “The last two overdose alerts we put out, the hospital said they had no overdoses for days following. But not this time.”
Prevention efforts continue in Carroll, such as the inclusion of “Heroin Still Kills,” a rebooted version of the “Heroin Kills” film produced in the wake of a string of overdoses two decades ago, in Carroll County Public Schools curricula. There will also be a free screening of the new film at the Finksburg branch of the Carroll County Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 29.
An effort at prevention, but also healing and recovery, will be the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office’s fifth annual Overdose Vigil, to be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 21, at Carroll Community College. The keynote speaker will be Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.