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Declining reports of opioid overdoses don't necessarily mean fewer people are overdosing, says Harford sheriff

Contact Reporterebutler@theaegis.com

The number of heroin and opioid overdoses being reported to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office is down significantly from the same time last year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not happening at the same rate.

And in the end, what matters is fewer people are dying, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said.

“Although I would prefer to say there are less overdoses and a declining trend,” Gahler said recently, “I think it’s a whole lot more likely there is so much more Narcan out there that that is saving lives. That’s the goal of it, which is great. It’s what we all hope to see, a declining number in our addicted population.”

As of Monday, the number of fatal opioid overdoses reported to the Sheriff’s Office this year was down by nearly 39 percent over the same period in 2018, from 31 last year to 19 this year, according to statistics provided by the Sheriff’s Office.

The number of total overdoses is down to 81 this year, from 112 at the same point last year, a decrease of nearly 28 percent, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Other counties in Maryland are also seeing a decreasing number of overdoses.

In Carroll County, the number of overdoses from 2018 to 2019 is down 40.2 percent, according to data from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.

Ten fatal overdoses were reported in Carroll in the first three months of this year, a 65.5 decrease in the total number of fatalities in the first three months of 2018 when there were 29, according to the data.

Howard County Police Department reports three fewer overdoses in the first three months of this year — 11 in 2018 down to eight this year. The police department reported 44 non-fatal overdoses so far this year, down from 56 for the same time frame in 2018.

Harford County reported 483 non-fatal and 86 fatal overdoses in 2018, while Howard County reported 187 non-fatal and 41 fatal.

Cristie Hopkins, director of media relations for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, said she doesn’t know why Harford had so many more overdoses. Among the things to consider are what is being counted as an overdose and which jurisdictions and agencies are reporting their numbers. In Harford, the Sheriff’s Office includes numbers of each municipal police agency, Maryland State Police and the hospital system.

‘Everybody’ is carrying narcan

Narcan, or naloxone, reverses the effects of an overdose.

“It’s not just police, fire[fighters and EMS are] carrying Narcan; it’s every family member, every addict,” Gahler said. “It’s so widely spread out there in the community, I would have to bet that’s where we’re saving more lives.”

The sheriff said it’s too early to say if heroin use is down, despite the declining numbers reported to his agency.

“We take it as a positive sign, even if it’s not as large as we would have hoped,” Gahler said, adding the Sheriff’s Office is seeing more repeat overdoses.

“Narcan gives the addict an opportunity to survive the overdose, but in too many cases, we see them use again,” he said.

Of the 96 total overdoses reported so far this year, 15 of them were repeats, Gahler said.

In other cases, Narcan might be administered by a friend or family member, and the overdose is never reported to authorities.

Fewer overdoses reported to the Sheriff’s Office slows down the agency’s ability to track the drugs back to dealers and arrest them, he said.

“If we’re not getting reports of overdoses from family or friends, if they’re never reported, that doesn’t bring our law enforcement response to bear,” Gahler said.

There are dealers who deal to supply their own habit, and dealers who “wouldn’t touch this stuff in a million years,” he said. “And those are the main focus of the [Narcotics] Task Force.”

The lack of a law enforcement response puts the epidemic into the realm of treatment and prevention, which is what has been lacking to date in Harford, he said.

“A person who almost died, they want to go somewhere, the best we could offer before was to put them on the phone with someone,” Gahler said. “Soon we will have the ability to have a warm handoff someplace. To take them someplace or have them transported someplace to hopefully begin and stick with a period of treatment.”

‘Aimed at saving lives’

The Harford Crisis Center is expected to open May 20.

The first of its kind in Maryland, providing 24-hour behavioral, mental and addiction health services, the Harford Crisis Center is the first co-located, co-funded, public-private partnership to offer behavioral health services in Maryland.

The Harford Crisis Center, at 802 Baltimore Pike in Bel Air, will offer a 24/7 alternative to emergency department treatment for individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis. Its services — walk-in mental health and substance use urgent care and crisis residential beds for adults — will be available in one non-hospital location and are expected to reduce the number of emergency department visits and inpatient admissions for Harford County residents in need of behavioral health services. Harford Crisis Center will serve individuals with mental health and/or substance use needs.

The Sheriff’s Office is also expanding its Substance and Behavioral Health Unit at the Harford County Detention Center to include women in the 10-week program.

The program had been limited to men who were in a separate housing area of the jail, which wasn’t available for women.

The sheriff’s office has worked with the healthcare provider at the jail and female inmates are being brought out of their housing units into one area for the day to go through the curriculum and then go back to their housing units at the end of the day.

“It’s a step in the right direction — I’ve been very pleased with that program,” Gahler said.

While the population at the jail is predominantly male, “that doesn’t mean we don’t have women in there suffering and also in need of help,” Gahler said. “If we have a program, it seems unfair that we can only offer it to one gender.”

Of the 106 people who have started the program, 55 have completed it and graduated. Of those, three have since overdosed, one fatally, the sheriff said.

The second Pledge Program is about to finish up and the third will begin May 21.

The Pledge Program is a four-week after-school program designed for students ages 8 to 11. Law enforcement, prevention specialists and medical personnel will use age-appropriate information to educate students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Students will learn from activities that deal with peer pressure, teach coping skills, show ways to stay safe and prepare them for their teenage years.

The next program will be offered on Tuesdays through June 11, 4 to 6 p.m. at Red Pump Elementary School. For information and to register, contact Sgt. Aaron Penman, 410-638-4486 or penmana@harfordsheriff.org.

The overall goal — whether it be through the Pledge Program, the substance abuse unit at the jail, the Harford Crisis Center — is to reduce the number of people dying from overdoses, Gahler said.

“First and foremost, law enforcement’s response is to do anything to keep our people safe and save lives. The primary mission, from the sheriff’s office standpoint, is to save lives,” Gahlers said. “Whether that is getting there and using Narcan, interrupting an overdose, giving them an opportunity for treatment, or all of our prevention efforts — it’s all aimed at saving lives.”

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