As Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler changed the number of overdoses this year to 100 on the heroin sign outside the Sheriff’s Office Bel Air headquarters Monday morning, investigators were on the scene of another fatal overdose.
A second fatal overdose of the day was reported Monday afternoon.
Despite such grim news on the 85th day of 2018, Gahler said he has something to be encouraged about: the overdoses numbers are increasing at a lower rate than previous years.
As of Monday evening, so far this year there have been 102 overdoses, 25 of them fatal, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Office, which includes two suspected opioid-related fatal overdoses Monday. At the same time last year, there were 99 overdoses, an increase of 3.03 percent, and 24 fatal overdoses, an increase of 4.17 percent.
The small increases are nonetheless encouraging, Gahler said.
“We’ve been talking 20, 30, 40 percent increases, so less of an increase is positive news,” the sheriff said Monday afternoon. “ But we would rather have long-sustaining decreases with less loss of life.”
For the same time frame between 2016 to 2017, the number of fatal overdoses increased 242.86 percent, from seven to 24, and the number of non-fatal overdoses rose 56.25 percent, from 48 to 75.
During the same period in 2016, Harford recorded 55 total overdoses, seven of them fatal, and in 2015, the first year the Sheriff’s Office started tracking overdoses, the county recorded 38 overdoses, six of them fatal, according to Sheriff’s Office data.
Joe Ryan, head of the county’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said he looks at the early 2018 numbers with optimism.
“[With] ... the younger people, the numbers are getting better. We think they’re getting the message, they’re understanding the epidemic that we’re in,” Ryan said. “We’re taking any positive signs and trying to build off of that because it’s such a dilemma that we’re in.”
He said the county has to continue its efforts to educate people about heroin and other opioids more stridently than ever.
“We can’t take our foot off the gas,” Ryan said.
The county needs to begin looking at how to help the older population, the 50 and older addicts, who are overdosing and whose addictions Ryan said likely started with pain management medication.
“That truly echoes the addiction to these opioid medications,” he said.
Doctors are changing their standards as far as how they prescribe medications, Ryan said, “because obviously we see the results of overmedicating.”
Rather than prescribe opiates for a minimum of 30 days after a surgery, doctors are limiting the prescriptions to three to seven days, he said.
“They’re trying to address the problem because it’s just a devastation,” he said.
The county government has authorized Harford’s participation in one of the scores of lawsuits planned or already filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The County Council approved a request from County Executive Barry Glassman on March 20 to retain an outside law firm for that purpose.
Gahler said another encouraging sign in Harford’s battle against opioid abuse is recent statistics on the use of naloxone, which is administered to someone overdosing to counter the effects of an opioid overdose.
Naloxone, also sold under the trade name Narcan, has been used by law enforcement more often this year than last, but at a rate much lower than from 2016 to 2017, according to the Sheriff’s Office data.
The counter-drug has been administered by law enforcement 31 times so far this year, an increase of 34.78 percent from the 23 times it was used by the same time last year. From 2016 to 2017, the use of Narcan increased 76.92 percent, from 13 to 23 incidents, and from 2015 to 2016, use went up by 85.71 percent, from seven to 13 incidents.
“Without Narcan out there, we’d be losing more lives,” the sheriff said.
Those uses do not include doses administered by emergency medical responders or by family or friends providing the dose, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Gahler said he’d like to see more good news stories, “because so many of them end so badly.”
“While it is encouraging to see the rate of our overdoses showing some signs of slowing during the first part of 2018, there remains far too many suffering from addiction, too many overdoses and too much loss of life to believe we are on a path to success,” Gahler said in a statement provided to The Aegis later in the day Monday.
More people are dying in Harford County from opioid abuse than from vehicle crashes and homicides combined, the sheriff’s statement noted.
“We have learned that the ever evolving threat posed by opioids and the synthetic versions of the drug remain the greatest threat to public safety we are facing,” Gahler said. “We will continue to work with all of our governmental and community partners to continue the fight.”
While school safety is a significant concern in the community, heroin is still the biggest public safety threat, Gahler said.
“It’s taking more lives, it’s impacting more lives, even though crime rates have fallen, it’s still at the root of nuisance crimes and lot of the felonies we see,” he said.
As Harford County records its 100th suspected opioid related overdose and the numbers continue to rise, Gahler said emergency crews will continue to respond and law enforcement will pursue dealers and sources to intervene in the destructive distribution.
“Giving up is not an option. Opioid abuse is affecting everybody — young, old, men, women, children, rural, urban, suburban and the impact is staggering to our communities,” he said. “The constant pain and suffering it causes cannot be measured in statistical data alone, but the numbers show just how much pain is really out there affecting all of us.”