With four fatal heroin overdoses this weekend, Harford County has reached the tragic milestone of 100 opioid-related deaths since the sheriff's office started keeping track at the start of 2015.
And Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said the worst is yet to come.
The deaths this weekend – three Saturday and one Sunday – bring the total of opioid-related deaths this year to 20. With 56 in 2016 and 27 in 2015, that's 103 heroin deaths, according to statistics from the Harford County Sheriff's Office.
Gahler doesn't want to look at it as just a number.
"Although we keep a count of our overdoses and fatal overdoses we don't look at any of these numbers as simple statistics, we look at this number as 100 individual lives lost in our Harford County community. One hundred brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, co-workers, neighbors," Gahler wrote in an email. "When you begin to group them all together as a single number, it is easy to lose sight of that fact. We never want to become numb or callous to the reality that these are human beings from our communities, we never want them to just be another 'statistic.'"
If the pace of overdoses continues at this rate, Harford is in position to record 87 fatal overdoses in 2017.
"It is hard to say how long the increase will continue, but, as has been the focus of my comments on many occasions, we will see worse before we start to see better and that the worst is yet to come," Gahler said.
In looking at the youth surveys from the Office of Drug Control Policy, police know the number of kids experimenting with drugs that are precursors to heroin use has been on the rise.
"Until we have a culture shift, the number of heroin related fatalities will not stop," Gahler said. "Prior to 2015, there was no formal education on the dangers of heroin use. As with any public health epidemic, education is key to changing attitudes and behaviors. It will take time to 'right the ship.'"
There are some victories, he said, some "glimmers of hope everywhere we turn, we just have to be willing to recognize small victories."
Many of those successes are rooted in community involvement, Gahler said. He pointed to the play "Addicted," in which recovering addicts are stepping forward to help others in recovery.
The play, produced by the North Harford High School drama department, was performed Thursday and Friday at the high school and will be staged again this Thursday and Friday at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, both nights at 7 p.m.
He also pointed out new programs for inmates at the detention center, the creation of Adult Opiate Recovery Court, state and county funds dedicated to recovery efforts, new legislation passed on sentencing dealers and the introduction of heroin coordinators around the state.
"All are glimmers of hope that we are making progress. Education and awareness has taken the stigma out of heroin and allowed us to have relevant and productive conversations," Gahler said.
As police continue to investigate the overdoses, fatal and non, other agencies in the community continue their efforts.
"While it can be tiring and sometime feel like an uphill battle, we will not stop until the signs outside of our buildings read '0'," Gahler said.
Fentanyl has proven to be a deadly factor in the fight against heroin and opioid-related deaths, investigators have said. And it's the primary reason for the continued increase in the number of fatal overdoses.
Drug investigators are also anticipating finding carfentanil mixed with heroin. It still has not shown up in any toxicology reports, but investigators says it's not if it will arrive, but when, since it's been reported in most surrounding states.
Just 45 minutes into 2017, Harford County recorded its first fatal heroin overdose -- a 36-year-old white woman who died in Edgewood, police said Tuesday. Her death follows a deadly year in Harford County, when 54 people died of heroin overdoses, up from 28 in 2015, according to the Harford County Sheriff's Office. That's a nearly 97 percent increase in the number of fatalities in one year
Del. Rick Impallaria, a Republican who represents western Harford and eastern Baltimore County, is sponsoring two bills in this year's session of the Maryland General Assembly to help law enforcement in the fight against the deadly epidemic.
He, along with Del. Mary Anne Lisanti, Republican Harford Dels. Susan McComas and Pat McDonough, as well as Anne Arundel Republican Del. Michael E. Malone, is sponsoring HB-612, to establish a criminal penalty of up to 30 years in prison for anyone who distributes heroin or fentanyl that causes the death of a user.
"Selling heroin laced with fentanyl is really murder for profit," Impallaria said. "These [dealers] know this is a deadly drug."
Similar legislation was passed in the Senate last week; a companion bill, introduced in the House at the request of Speaker Michael Busch, has not left committee, according to the General Assembly website.
No action has been taken on Impallaria's bill since a Feb. 28 committee hearing.
"I'm hoping in some way, some version, if not this year, will eventually get passed," Impallaria said.
A second bill in the heroin fight is HB-661, which would require hospitals and health care providers across the state to notify law enforcement within 48 hours after a patient has been treated for a suspected overdose.
Impallaria and his colleagues supported legislation last year for such data sharing in Harford County, but the Sheriff's Office and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health signed an agreement to share overdose data last year, negating the need for a local bill.
"I think it needs to be done at a statewide level," Impallaria said, noting Gahler asked for a statewide bill this year.
He noted law enforcement in Harford could then get data about Harford residents who are treated for overdoses at hospitals in Baltimore or Cecil counties.
"Law enforcement really needs this as a tool to determine where this heroin is coming from," Impallaria said.
The most recent actions on these two bills were a Feb. 21 committee hearing on HB-661 and a Feb. 28 hearing on HB-612, according to the General Assembly website.
'Far from over'
None of this weekend's fatal overdoses appear to be related, according to Cristie Kahler, spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office.
A 47-year-old white woman died Saturday in Havre de Grace, a 26-year-old white man died Saturday in Bel Air, a 35-year-old white man died Saturday in Aberdeen and a 27-year-old white man died Sunday in Aberdeen.
Those deaths were added to the tally boards outside the sheriff's office headquarters in Bel Air, the precincts in Edgewood and Jarrettsville, the Maryland State Police Bel Air Barrack and the Aberdeen Police Department.
The idea of those signs, Gahler said, was to bring awareness to the idea that lives were being lost at an alarming rate.
"We wanted to begin a conversation about the deadly consequences to this drug," Gahler said. "We haven't stopped to say 'we have reached 100.' Instead, we reflect on how much work lies ahead to ensure no more loved ones are lost to heroin. With that said, 100 deaths certainly says, the fight is far from over."