Fatal heroin overdoses in Harford fewer this year than 2017, sheriff says

Major Jack Simpson with the Harford County Sheriff's Office changes the overdose death numbers to 63, on the Heroin Awareness sign in front of the Harford County Sheriff's Office Headquarters building on Oct. 15, 2018.
Major Jack Simpson with the Harford County Sheriff's Office changes the overdose death numbers to 63, on the Heroin Awareness sign in front of the Harford County Sheriff's Office Headquarters building on Oct. 15, 2018. (Matt Button / The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

While the number of overall heroin and opioid overdoses is higher this year than at the same time last year, the number of fatal overdoses had dropped more than 7 percent, the Harford County sheriff said.

As of Monday, 63 people had died from an opioid overdose in Harford County this year, compared with 68 people who had died as of the same time in 2017, a decrease of 7.35 percent, according to statistics from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.


“That’s five more families who still have their loved ones,” Maj. Jack Simpson, commander of the Sheriff’s Office administrative services bureau, said as he changed the board Monday outside the agency’s headquarters on Main Street in Bel Air.

The number of non-fatal overdoses, however, has increased 3.7 percent to 308 year-to-date in 2018 compared with 297 at the same time in 2017.

When Larry Hogan ran for governor four years ago he vowed to urgently address what he called Maryland’s “heroin epidemic.” But deaths have soared.

After a deadly February and March, when 12 and 10 fatal overdoses were reported, the numbers on the board this year have been climbing at a considerably lower rate.

In two months this year — May and September — only three fatal overdoses were reported. The fewest reported in any month in 2017 was four in December, according to the Sheriff’s Office’s statistics.

“While I am hopeful that we are in the early stages of seeing a positive impact from the tireless work of our deputies, I am cautious with my optimism, but hopeful,” Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said Tuesday.

Since he was elected, Gahler and Sheriff’s Office deputies have aggressively investigated and prosecuted people who contribute to the flow of drugs into the community. Combined with strong relationships with county partners have resulted in targeted enforcement efforts and a strong increase in awareness of the heroin epidemic, he said.


“Education, supported by our community partners, has also helped to avert tragedy in many homes and made our team larger, stronger and more impactful,” Gahler said. “The fight against opioid abuse is truly a team effort that requires creative solutions.”

Evidence of the fight is all over Harford County: whether it’s an awareness sign or tally board or the HOPE House at a community event, he said.

“While it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, Harford County's improvements in 2018 are likely due to a concerted community partnership effort to address behavioral health issues in an integrated manner,” Harford County Health Officer Dr. Russell Moy said.

Specifically, he cites the work of county government, county health department, county office of mental health, law enforcement, the judicial system, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, community providers and many other stakeholders that “have aligned efforts to promote prevention efforts, expand outreach and treatment services and build peer recovery support capacity.”

Among the results of their work is the new 24/7 county crisis hotline service (1-800-NEXT-STEP) and plans for a 24/7 walk-in crisis center by early next year, Moy said.

Naloxone, which counters the effects of opioids, is also helping to reduce the number of overdose deaths, Gahler said.

As the number of drug-related deaths in Maryland climbs, funeral directors are calling themselves the "last responders" to the opioid epidemic. They're considering stocking the antidote Narcan for themselves, their staffs and mourners; a Timonium funeral home already has the drug on hand.

Not only do law enforcement officers routinely carry the drug, also sold under the brand name Narcan, with them, the drug is also being distributed through the Harford County Health Department to families and friends of people who struggle with opioid addiction.

“Anecdotally, we know that more and more families are equipped with Narcan to save their loved ones. This is creating fewer calls for assistance for law enforcement and EMS,” Gahler said.

Families often report they have intervened on multiple previous overdoses without first responders ever being notified.

“That being said, I am extremely encouraged that we are saving lives with Narcan,” Gahler said. “After all saving lives and protecting our communities is our mission. We will continue to work until this deadly drug is off our streets and out of our communities.”

Different data

While the Sheriff’s Office tallies strictly heroin and opioid overdoses, the health department and Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy look at different numbers, which account for fatal and non-fatal overdoses of not only heroin and opioids, but also alcohol and other drugs.

Joe Ryan, manager of the Office of Drug Control Policy, says it paints a slightly different picture of addiction in Harford.

“Obviously it’s good news, any time we’re saving lives, we’re reducing overdose deaths,” Ryan said.

The Sheriff’s Office data is more current, though it could change in one direction or the other, depending on results of toxicological tests it gets back from the Medical Examiner’s Office, but it’s still not the most comprehensive picture of drug and alcohol abuse problems in the county, Ryan said.

“We’re looking at that whole bigger picture of drug addiction and how it’s affecting individuals and their families,” he said.

According to statistics Ryan provided, total drug and alcohol intoxication deaths are up by one, from 52 to 53, from January to June 2017 to the same six-month period this year.

Even with an increase, it’s still a slower increase than in previous years, he said.

“We’re trying to look for small glimmers of hope,” Ryan said. “We’re stabilizing the problem, myself, the county executive, the health officer, and we realize it’s not a switch that’s going to be turned on and fixed overnight. We’re in it for the long haul, we know it’s going to take time to address the problem.”

In the last five or six years, one of the key elements to the fight against the opioid epidemic has been targeting middle school-age students with education programs, Ryan said.

“We’re hoping maybe to get some of the fruits of our work, where young adults are making better decisions,” he said.

The local recovery community is also getting stronger, he said.

“We’re trying to knock down the stigma of folks related to recovery. It’s somebody’s daughter, son, wife, husband, so it’s not something people should be ashamed of,” Ryan said. “It happens to the best of families — judges, elected officials, ministers, successful business people, judges — it affects every part of the community.”