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 at least 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. The number of fatalities could increase pending results of toxicology reports in some cases still with the medical examiner's office.
"Obviously, we're extremely disappointed with our number in 2016, specifically the number of fatal overdoses nearly doubling," Capt. Lee Dunbar, commander of the Harford County Task Force, said Tuesday. "Our goal for 2017 is to get those numbers going in the opposite direction."
The number of overall overdoses, including fatal ones, rose to 287 in 2016 from 201 in 2015. As of Tuesday morning, two overdoses had been reported for 2017.
The increase in fatalities continues to be largely blamed on the addition of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl to street heroin, which many users don't realize are in the drug they are taking, Dunbar said.
"Based on intelligence, in our number as well as in surrounding jurisdictions and across the country, it is directly attributable to fentanyl, the increase in distribution and use," Dunbar said. "And the fact that it is now commonly cut with heroin."
Dunbar said he expects fentanyl to become more prevalent on its own in this area, independent of heroin, and that there have been a handful of cases in which the drug users said they were looking for fentanyl specifically and were able to purchase it.
"Unfortunately, it's becoming more and more common," he said.
Fentanyl itself is more popular in the northeast region of the country, he said, where it's very common in certain markets to purchase undiluted fentanyl.
"We suspect that will be the same here soon," he said.
Not as drastic
While the number of fatal overdoses nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016, the number of reported overdoses overall has not increased as dramatically, by about 30 percent from 2015.
That doesn't mean, necessarily, the number of overdoses reported to the Sheriff's Office isn't increasing as fast as the number of fatalities, Dunbar said.
Investigators believe more and more people have prescriptions for Narcan, which treats users overdosing on heroin, he said.
A family member, friend or fellow addict could administer the Narcan and revive the victim, without reporting the overdose to police, Dunbar said.
"One reason we suspect they haven't increased as dramatically is because people are self-administering Narcan," he said. "If they don't call 911, we won't get that call."
He encourages anyone and everyone who has a loved one or friend who overdoses – or even if an anti-opioid like Narcan is self-administered and the person is revived – to call 911, regardless.
"That person could very easily go back into respiratory arrest," he said. "The initial dose of Narcan only reverses the effects of respiratory arrest for 30 to 40 minutes. That's why we want legislation that it's mandatory to report an overdose, so the person can get to a local hospital, get treated and get proper follow up and care."
The Good Samaritan Law applies in cases such as overdoses, where the person calling 911, if they are using, won't be prosecuted for misdemeanor possession of heroin or drug paraphernalia.
Lowering the numbers
Harford's new heroin coordinator, who started Tuesday, is expected to help police identify drug dealers and traffickers in Harford County, which in turn should help in their prosecution and getting them off the streets. Dunbar declined to give coordinator's name, pending clearance from the Sheriff's Office.
That's one way the county can reduce the number of overdoses and deaths, Dunbar said.
But it takes a "multi-prong" approach with strong and aggressive enforcement for those dealing and full prosecution, as well as outreach and education that is a team effort of law enforcement, the community, the education system and the health care systems.
"We've got a great relationship with the Board of Education to get the message to a younger age group. We would like to get into elementary schools, we feel that's very important and it should be age appropriate," Dunbar said.