The number of heroin-related deaths in Howard County between January and March this year doubled compared to the same time frame last year, painting a grim reality of the substance abuse crisis the county faces.
Maryland's Department of Health released a statewide report Aug. 4 detailing the number of drug- and alcohol-related intoxication deaths during the first quarter of 2017. The report comes amid a time of high publicity for the opioid crisis, as President Donald Trump on Thursday declared the crisis a national emergency. Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in Maryland in March.
Howard County, like other jurisdictions in Maryland, saw a rise in deaths related to a number of drugs, including heroin, prescription opioids and, most dramatically, fentanyl. The number of fentanyl-related deaths in the county doubled in the first quarter of 2017 compared to last year, increasing from five deaths between January and March 2016 to 11 this year.
Maura Rossman, the Howard County health officer, said the spike in fentanyl-related deaths can largely be attributed to the drug being used more by dealers to cut heroin. Fentanyl is a much more potent drug than heroin, Rossman said, and the same dosage of heroin when containing fentanyl can do much more damage to a user.
"Our data is not suggesting that we have more people overdosing, but more people are dying of overdoses," Rossman said. "The user doesn't know what they're getting. If they inject the same amount of heroin cut with fentanyl, they're more likely to overdose."
Joan Webb Scornaienchi, director of HC DrugFree, a nonprofit that aims to address behavioral health issues, said that her organization has been working with the county to better educate people about the particularly high dangers of fentanyl.
"People who may even just want to experiment and think that they're buying heroin can find themselves dead because they've bought heroin mixed with fentanyl," Scornaienchi said. "[It's a] huge concern to us."
Fentanyl is not the only drug contributing toward the increase over last year's death toll in the county. In 2016, six people died from prescription opioid-related causes; in the first three months of 2017 already three people have died from these causes.
Howard County tied with Montgomery County for the sixth-highest number of heroin-related deaths so far this year with 10 deaths between January and March; last year, a total of 24 people suffered heroin-related deaths in the county.
The highest rate of overdose deaths in the county so far this year have occurred in areas near Columbia, Jessup and Savage. Maryland's Vital Statistics Administration tracks the death rates by ZIP code.
Specific numbers of fatal and non-fatal overdoses in each county ZIP code were not immediately available from the Health Department.
Rossman said that while they do try to target some of their services in areas where overdose and death rates are higher, the department's main focus remains at a county-wide level because of how widespread the problem is.
"In virtually every ZIP code there's an overdose," Rossman said.
In an attempt to curb the continued surge of drug-related deaths in the county, Rossman said officials last week submitted a proposal to the state for slightly less than $125,000 in funding to increase substance abuse treatment services and resources. That money will be put toward establishing a "more robust" emergency hotline as well as resources for family members and others seeking assistance for another individual suffering from substance abuse.
There is already a hotline within the department of behavioral health, but Rossman said the funding would allow officials to enhance it. Professionals would be able to perform screenings for callers, help determine the best treatment for them and link them to that assistance "fairly quickly," according to Rossman. Other jurisdictions in the country already use hotlines successfully to screen substance abusers and connect them to treatment, she said.
The hotline and resources for family members are two strategies that join a host of other plans from the county to mitigate the substance abuse crisis. In recent months the county has begun location searches for its first residential detox center and for a crisis stabilization center that can assess addicts and offer case management services. Neither project has settled on a location yet, Rossman said.
Efforts such as case management and a hotline are "ridiculous" without the infrastructure — namely a residential treatment center — to send addicts directly to, said Mike Gimbel, Baltimore County's Drug Czar from 1980 to 2003 who now owns a consulting firm for drug-related issues.
Gimbel said he was a former heroin addict and has been clean for 44 years. He said that addicts need to be in a facility for five to seven days in order to fully detox, otherwise they'll go back on the street and start using again.
"In Howard County that's government bureaucracy at its worst. We need a treatment center right now," Gimbel said. "Addicts aren't going to pick up the phone and call a hotline, it's a waste of money. What are you going to tell them on the hotline, we don't have treatment in Howard County, but come back in two or three years?"
Despite such criticisms, Rossman said, county officials are working tirelessly to provide as many resources as possible for addicts. She said the county is using a "no wrong door policy" so that no matter where an addict goes, whether a hospital, hotline or police station, they can be met by professionals who can assess their needs and direct them to treatment.
"Whenever there's a crisis everything seems to take longer than one would like it to take," Rossman said. "We're in it for the long haul."
Rossman said it is vital that Howard work with other counties to address the problem. Approximately 25 percent of overdose deaths that occur in Howard are from residents who live outside the county, and approximately 25 percent of Howard County residents who fatally overdose do so outside the county, she said.
At the local school level, HC DrugFree works with the county's schools to educate young people and their parents, and will be present at events such as back-to-school nights in the fall and athletic team meetings, as student athletes are often prone to become addicted to painkillers after taking them for an injury, Scornaienchi said.
Gimbel said targeting athletes and their parents is a smart step, but that ultimately it's a matter of connecting these most vulnerable groups with immediate residential treatment, especially now as the crisis seeps into families that have never dealt with serious drug issues.
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"Heroin is not like any drug middle class America has ever dealt with," Gimbel said. "It takes over your soul. It turns you into an animal."