The heroin epidemic in Harford County is as serious as it has been in the last few years and the main law enforcement agency is trying everything possible to curb the problem.
“We’re going to keep fighting on all fronts,” Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said. “We have hope that our efforts will pay off over time. And we’ll continue to do the great things we have been doing collectively here in Harford County and we’re ready to run with an idea that comes from anywhere.”
Fatal heroin and opioid overdoses were up by one in 2018, to 83 from 82 in 2017, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
Overall overdoses, however, were up by 30 percent to 565 in 2018. The numbers could change slightly, pending outstanding toxicology results from cases last year, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Opioid overdoses continue to be predominantly a white male epidemic, with 141 females overdoses – 17 fatal and 124 non-fatal and 378 male overdoses – 66 male and 312 non-fatal.
But the epidemic knows no boundaries, Gahler said. Fatal overdoses continue to rise in the state.
“We have seen all demographics, both sexes, all ZIP codes, we’ve seen every corner of our county, from the advantageous ZIP codes to the lesser so,” he said. “We’ve seen all professions, including those who work in health care and public safety.”
Gahler also pointed out their data is showing growing heroin and opioid use within the black community.
The prevalence of Narcan, which counters the effects of heroin and opioids, may be giving a false sense of the number of overdoses, the sheriff said.
Virtually everyone who has a friend or family member struggling with addiction carries Narcan, Gahler said, and there are overdoses regularly that aren’t reported at the hospital nor to law enforcement.
The hospital reported a death in December to the Sheriff’s Office in which a woman brought her grandson, in his 20s, to the hospital for an overdose. He had overdosed six times previously, said Capt. Michael Crabbs, commander of the Narcotics Task Force. The seventh time, he died.
The previous six times, law enforcement was never called, EMS was never called, nor was the hospital aware of any of the incidents, Crabbs said.
“Those are the sad stories we don’t hear about until after the fact,” he said.
Narcan use by Sheriff’s Office deputies was down last year, from 134 uses in 2017 to 116 in 2018.
“Even though our overdoses went up, our law enforcement use went down,” Gahler said.
He’d rather have people using Narcan and not reported an overdose to law enforcement than not using Narcan, he said.
“No matter how you look at it, you hope that person is going to take advantage of the opportunity they’ve been given,” Gahler said. “One thing we know for sure, if they’re deceased, they have no chance in making a different decision.”
The deadliest month last year was February, when 12 people died of heroin or opioid overdoses. March and October were the next deadliest, with 10 and nine fatal overdoses, respectively.
Eight people died in April, July and August, seven in September, six in November, five in January, four in June and three each in May and December.
There’s no way to say why some months are deadlier than others, Crabbs said.
“The warmer months, the job market, we can’t give a definitive answer,” Crabbs said. “There is no rhyme or reason.”
February was one of the highest months for non-fatal overdoses as well, with 47. Only January, with 53 overdoses, was worse. Forty-three non-fatal overdoses were reported in June, followed by 42 in November and December, 40 in March, 39 in April and September, 36 in May and 33 and 31 in August and July, according to the Sheriff’s Office data.
The gender of 46 of the non-fatal overdoses was unknown. Because they sought treatment at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, their demographic information was never released to law enforcement.
The Sheriff’s Office responds to all overdoses reported to 911. The hospitals in Harford — Upper Chesapeake in Bel Air and Harford Memorial in Havre de Grace — track all overdose patients who are brought to the hospital other than by ambulance. They provide their data to the Sheriff’s office monthly.
Upper Chesapeake reported four fatal overdoses and 169 non-fatal overdoses in 2018, while Harford Memorial reported 39 non-fatal overdoses, according to the Sheriff’s Office data.
The deadliest area of Harford County was Edgewood, where 12 fatal and 73 non-fatal overdoses were reported. In the Bel Air ZIP codes, excluding the hospital, 20 fatal overdoses and 46 non-fatal overdoses were reported, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Other areas with high concentrations of overdoses included Aberdeen, 33 non-fatal, six fatal; Abingdon, 28 non-fatal, seven fatal; Joppa, 24 fatal, nine non-fatal; and Havre de Grace, 14 non-fatal and six fatal.
The average age of an overdose victim was 35 years, six months old.
It’s just about a given that today’s heroin will contain a synthetic opioid such as fentanyl or carfentanil, Gahler said.
Other drugs are entering the mix as well, including cocaine, use of which has been on the rise, he said.
Fentanyl, which is not a pharmacy grade product, is coming mostly from Mexico, Crabbs said.
Addressing the epidemic
Harford has tried to be out front in tackling the opioid epidemic, and some agencies have modeled programs after theirs, Gahler said.
Many of the programs are being done through a partnership of county agencies — the Sheriff’s Office, the county government, the health department, Upper Chesapeake Health, among others.
Among Gahler’s efforts was formation of the HOPE Group, which has spearheaded a number of the programs, including the HOPE House trailer. It provides a look at potential hiding places for drugs and paraphernalia in a typical bedroom.
The Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Unit at the Harford County Detention Center offers a clinical approach to recovery. Over 10 weeks, inmates selected for the program learn how to function drug-free once they’re released from jail.
The Sheriff’s Office knows of one overdose from someone who went all the way through the program and was subsequently released from jail. That overdose was fatal, Gahler said.
Twelve inmates are enrolled in the program today.
“In no way do I think we’re 95, 99 percent successful in that program. But I’ll take 1 percent success. I would hope for more but I will take any part of a small success,” Gahler said. “The program is not going anywhere. It’s not costing a ton of money to do it so we’re going to keep on trying.”
Among the new efforts is the four-week Pledge Program, for children ages 8 to 11 years old.
“That’s a great venue to start in. The earlier we can start with education the better,” Crabbs said. “Prevention and education — you can’t arrest your way out of it, so prevention and education along with enforcement is the way to properly address it.”
The county is still a long way from having any true solution to the opioid epidemic, and 2019 didn’t start on a great foot.
In the first week, three of the five overdoses were fatal, including a woman in her 20s who was eight months pregnant.
“That’s the strength and draw of the drug,” Gahler said. “A woman eight months pregnant can’t resist it and has to use and not only ends her own life but ends that of her child.”
Everyone — from the HOPE Group to the new crisis center to local governments — is trying, he said.
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“The lure or draw of this drug, opioids in general, is so strong, we knew it would be a long way to try to turn the tide,” Gahler said. “And by the numbers we’re seeing, we’re still mid-stream, with not a lot of positive statistical change yet. But we still have hope.”