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Agreement on overdose information sharing is necessary, sensible [Editorial]

The agreement announced last week between the Harford County Sheriff's Office and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health on sharing overdose information makes perfect sense and is a reasonable accommodation by both organizations.

The accord will provide Harford County law enforcement and other state and federal police agencies with more valuable information regarding sources of supply for heroin and other opioid drugs that are being abused and are killing people in Harford and other communities at an alarming rate.

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At the same time, confidential personal health information of the overdose victims, which is strongly protected by federal law, shouldn't be compromised. As long as law enforcement sticks to the letter of the agreement, no breaches of confidentiality should result.

We commend both sides for working this out, without the need for legislative battles, which is where the issue might have been headed.

Under this agreement, signed by Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and Dr. Fermin Barrueto, chief medical officer for Upper Chesapeake Health, the health system will provide to law enforcement data on people who visit a UCH facility in Harford County for a suspected "opioid-related" overdose.

The data will include the person's gender, race, age, the community where they live, the drug suspected of causing the overdose and the date the person was treated. It must be provided within 48 hours after the person is discharged, according to the MOU.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health signed a memorandum of understanding Thursday to obtain data on additional overdose victims. (David Anderson / BSMG)

The agreement, which is in effect for five years and is their first of its kind in Maryland, closes a reporting hole in the Sheriff's Office's nearly two-year effort to respond to and record every heroin/opioid-related overdose in the county, non-fatal and fatal, as a means of gathering intelligence about drug dealers and supply sources.

While Harford County Task Force detectives have been able to respond to overdose calls that come through the county-run 911 emergency system, overdose victims who go to or are taken directly by family or others to the county's urgent care centers or to either of its two hospitals, would not have been part of the sheriff's data collection prior to the signing of last week's agreement.

"We can't fix a problem if we don't know what the entire problem is," Gahler said about the need for the additional reporting.

We agree. Contemporary policing is and should be data driven, regardless if some purists believe the contrary. If Gahler hadn't started the current overdose response protocol, we doubt our county's citizens would have comprehended the scope of the heroin epidemic and how it touches everyone in the community. The reporting protocol has helped galvanize awareness programs and to point out the increased need for local addiction treatment programs.

Will these additional statistics make a difference by getting illegal drugs off the street? At a community forum the night the information sharing agreement was signed, the commander of the task force, Capt. Lee Dunbar, observed "demand is huge, the supply is endless," while conceding the amount of heroin seized by law enforcement in Harford is only a fraction of what is available.

Still, anything the police can use in their arsenal to arrest the supply of heroin and other abused opioids is better than doing nothing and letting the deaths run their course.

"When the sheriff's department approached us about participating in this MOU, we said 'absolutely, yes,'" Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, said. "We recognize the challenge this epidemic causes for us in our communities, in our hospitals, we want to be very, very supportive and help as a community try to tackle this approach in a very, very different way."

The first of three Heroin Prevention & Awareness Briefings for Harford County residents takes place at Edgewood High School Wednesday night. (David Anderson, Baltimore Sun Media Group)
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