Officials call for strategy on opioid epidemic
County executives say collaboration needed as drugs take hold in Md.
State and local officials called for broad collaboration to battle the opioid epidemic gripping Maryland at a summit Tuesday organized by leaders of Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh said the surge in opioid-related deaths shows that recent statewide efforts to fund prevention and treatment are “not working.”
Police and health officials are “overrun” by the epidemic, said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who chairs the state’s task force on heroin and opioid addiction. He said early education and public outreach are needed to stem the epidemic.
Statewide deaths linked to opioid use, fueled by a rise in prescription drug abuse, have increased by more than 100 percent in the last five years.
County executives said their own jurisdictions’ efforts alone have not been enough.
In Howard County, heroin-related deaths doubled from eight in 2014 to 16 in 2015.
This year, roughly 74 percent of all overdose deaths in the county stemmed from heroin use.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this,” Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner said.
A 2013 state law that protects bystanders who help others in overdose emergencies from criminal prosecution was an important first step in tackling the epidemic, Gardner said.
Before the law passed, Gardner said, police routinely found opioid users left in cars or parking lots.
Howard County plans to use a $70,000 state grant to hire a heroin coordinator to work with local health and police departments and gather information when officers respond to calls about illegal opioid use
Police in Howard have dubbed U.S. 40 “Heroin Highway.”
But even the administration of Naloxone — the prescription nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose — is “a double-edged sword,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.
Users sometimes rely on the treatment as a last resort to save them, Kittleman said.
In some cases, the Howard County Police Department has administered the treatment to the same individual several times.
Police began administering the spray in June last year, said Matthew Levy, medical director of the county’s police, fire and EMS services.
Fire and rescue services have administered it for at least 20 years.
The number of times Howard County first responders have administered Naloxone has almost doubled over the past year, Levy said.
Harford County has surpassed the number of heroin overdose deaths from 2015, County Executive Barry Glassman said. He said the epidemic recognizes no ZIP codes or demographic groups and permeates all communities.
Despite efforts to improve public outreach, he said, heroin continues to take a hold on the county.
Schuh said the fight against heroin use is a top priority.
He called opioid addiction an “octopus from hell” with “tentacles that reach every aspect of life.”