Don’t lose sight of progress
This past week, we received the unfortunate news that Cecil County’s number of fatal drug and alcohol overdoses reached new highs in 2015, including a growing number from the newly emerging threat of fentanyl.
The county saw 32 fatal overdoses last year, an increase of three deaths, or 10 percent, over the previous year, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report.
Of those deaths, 16 were heroin-related, an increase of one death, or 6 percent, over the previous year. The 16 heroin-related deaths is the highest recorded Cecil County total by DHMH since it started tracking overdose statistics in 2007. Since 2010, the number of heroin deaths statewide has more than tripled, with 748 reported last year.
Perhaps most troubling in the data is the dramatic rise in the number of fentanyl-related deaths. The county saw seven such deaths in 2015 after just one the year prior, and never had more than two in any recorded year. The drug is an extremely strong opiate — roughly 100 times more potent than morphine — that is increasingly being mixed with heroin, according to reports across the region. Because of its potency, the risk of overdosing with fentanyl-laced heroin is much higher.
The findings in the state report are not shocking to anyone who has been keeping informed on the origins of the current substance abuse crisis and the challenges in combating it. The growth of pharmaceutical painkiller prescriptions in the 2000s dramatically increased the number of those addicted and when their insurance or funds ran out, the much cheaper heroin became the drug of choice. Heroin continues to be an emergency problem in Maryland, and the introduction of fentanyl, which can be added to heroin to make a more potent drug, only exacerbates the threat of an overdose.
With those challenges understood, Cecil County has been among the forefront of those making a difference in changing the culture and stigma surrounding addiction. Our county executive, county council and health care community have made a concerted effort to make drug treatment and recovery a priority in recent years. While overdoses have continued to slowly increase here, we are also making a significant amount of progress.
While Cecil County’s statistics rose, its increases were not as dramatic as other areas of the state. Harford County saw an increase of 16 percent in total overdose deaths, while both Baltimore County and City rose 29 percent. Cecil County was also under the state’s overall increase in overdose deaths at 21 percent.
The growth of peer recovery advocates, or people in long-term recovery who advocate for treatment, and the launch of a resource website, RewriteYourScript.org, have also helped county physicians discuss addiction with their patients.
There are 64 known lives saved by the 973 trained members of the public and law enforcement officers over the past two years as the result of the health department’s naloxone program, which has disseminated and trained on the use of the overdosereversing drug. A Vivitrol program at the Cecil County Detention Center has also served several dozen inmates who are looking to continue in sobriety after release by taking the prescription drug that denies the euphoric feeling from opiates for up to a month. The Cecil County Health Department’s Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center is also assessing more people for treatment than ever, with a 28 percent increase in the first quarter of 2016 compared to 2015.
Today, Cecil County boasts 10 recovery homes with more than 75 total beds to support those entering recovery, when just three years ago there were none at all. A growing number of those in recovery are also shedding their anonymity in order advocate for recovery resources and battle stigma, led by the nonprofit Voices of Hope for Cecil County.
Unfortunately, the addiction battle is too often scored by its losses rather than its victories. While we grieve each and every person who loses his or her battle to substance abuse via an overdose, we have to remain focused on making progress. And that advancement is evident here — sometimes we just have to look beyond the soundbites.