Three people died of heroin overdoses within 19 hours last weekend, and more calls have come in to police and emergency responders in the early days of this week, prompting the Harford County Sheriff's Office to urge the public to check in on family members or friends who might be struggling with drug abuse.
The Sheriff's Office also confirmed that the lethal combination of heroin and fentanyl has shown up in Harford County in the illegal market for those trying to buy painkillers such as oxycodone.
In a message on Facebook over the weekend, the Sheriff's Office and task force investigators urged people to check in on those they know suffer from addiction.
In this weekend's cases, the drug Narcan, which deputies began carrying with them last year, couldn't help the victims. At least two of them had been dead "for a period of time" before they were discovered, Christie Kahler, a Sheriff's Office spokesperson, said in an email.
"We recognize people are suffering, nothing is going to stop them from using," Kahler said.
She urged people to call 911 immediately in the case of a suspected overdose. She said 70 percent of overdoses happen in a residence, although this was not the case in the fatal overdoses over the weekend.
"Check on them, keep an eye on them, be aware of the signs, be aware of Narcan," Kahler said. "Don't try to handle on your own. Time is of the essence. Dial 911 right away and may those lives can be saved."
Heroin has been around for a long time, the sheriff's office recognizes that, Kahler said.
"But it's never been more pure, cheaper or more prevalent. It creates a lethal combo, the sheriff [Jeffrey Gahler] calls it the legal trifecta," she said. "People are using more."
The fatal overdoses Saturday involved one woman and two men in three unrelated cases. The victims were found in a residence in Edgewood, at a motel in Edgewood and in a vehicle in Havre de Grace.
The only link among all three, according to the Harford County Sheriff's Office, is that detectives believe "the suspected heroin used in the three fatals from this weekend all came from Baltimore City."
The Sheriff's Office would not provide any further details, other than to say the Harford County Task Force is investigating the overdoses.
The Sheriff's Office also confirmed that on Monday morning an individual who was being brought into the Detention Center by patrol appeared to be suffering from a heroin overdose while being processed.
"The medical staff at the Detention Center administered a dose of Narcan to the individual who was then transported to the hospital," Kahler said via email.
As of Sunday, the total number of overdoses investigated by the Sheriff's Office this year had risen to 93, 13 of them fatal. That is an increase from 84 overdoses and 10 fatals a week earlier, according to Kahler. The Sheriff's Office reports its responses to overdoses on a weekly basis each Monday.
The week of May 9 to 15, two non-fatal overdoses were reported on Monday, May 9; two on Tuesday, May 10; one on Thursday and one on Friday, in addition to the three fatal overdoses on Saturday, Kahler said.
The Sheriff's Office declined to release the names of the three overdose victims who died, citing the ongoing investigation into the source of their heroin that could result in federal charges against suspected drug dealers.
Releasing the names could also lead to more overdoses and/or deaths, Kahler said.
"Sometimes, if there is a bad batch, or a fatality, other people look to buy from that dealer, thinking it could have a higher potency, they could beat that or it must be really good," Kahler explained. "They think 'they might not have survived, but I could.'"
Making the crisis worse, the task force also recently came across its first batch of counterfeit painkiller pills.
Harford Task Force members seized what were suspected to be 30 mg oxycodone pills, according to Kahler, and per standard protocol, the pills were submitted to the lab for testing and verification.
Last week, the lab notified the task force that the pills submitted after seizure in Harford County "were actually a dangerous combination of heroin, fentanyl and caffeine," Kahler said.
"Members of the task force had learned that counterfeit pills comprised of the same substances had begun showing up in cases around the country, but had not been seen in Harford County, until now," Kahler said. "In fact, after meeting with several surrounding law enforcement agencies, task force commanders believe this is the first time counterfeit pills with this particular make-up have been recovered in the Baltimore region."
These counterfeit pills look exactly like pharmaceutical grade narcotics, creating a potentially dangerous and deadly outcome for the user, Kahler said.