New State Data Show Cecil County on Track for Record Drug Overdose Deaths This Year; Heroin Deaths Rise Sharply
A Cecil Times Special Report
New state figures for the first quarter of 2014 show that Cecil County is on track for a possible record number of drug overdose deaths this year, with 10 deaths in the first three months, and if that pace continues the drug death toll could far exceed past levels. Heroin deaths were also sharply higher so far this year.
The new data, compiled by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, covered the first three months of this year. The statewide statistics did not break the figures down on a pro-rated population basis, but even so, Cecil County shows numerical drug death figures equal to some other counties with as much as ten times the overall Cecil population.
Governor Martin O’Malley recently discussed the new drug overdose fatalities data, saying that his administration was committed to reducing drug overdose deaths statewide by 20 percent by 2015. The governor said that the new first-quarter 2014 statistics showed there was a 33 percent increase in drug overdose deaths statewide from the same time last year.
In June, the governor created an “Overdose Prevention Council” to establish a multi-agency group to seek solutions to the drug overdose crisis. O’Malley said the Council “represents a new level of co-ordination, data collection, analysis and information sharing among state agencies.” Last summer, O’Malley visited Cecil County for a “drug summit” to discuss with local officials possible solutions to the county’s drug crisis —which in 2011 placed Cecil on a par with Baltimore City’s drug death rate.
The new statistics show that there were 10 drug overdose deaths in Cecil County in the first three months of the year. In raw numbers, that put the county in 8th place statewide for drug deaths. But all the jurisdictions with higher numbers of deaths also had significantly higher overall populations, meaning that Cecil County still had an extraordinarily high drug death rate in comparison to the county’s population.
For example, Frederick County had 11 drug overdose deaths in the first quarter of 2014—just one more than Cecil County. But Frederick County’s population is more than twice that of Cecil. Frederick County’s residents are listed as 241,409, according to state population estimates for 2013—while Cecil County’s population is less than half that figure: 101,913 as of 7/2013.
And Cecil County’s new drug death figure of 10 was tied with that of Montgomery County—the largest county in the state with a population of 1,016,677—or ten times the population of Cecil County.
Obviously, the larger a county’s population is, the larger the potential number of drug-related deaths. But Cecil County, while the largest county on the Eastern Shore in terms of population, has consistently registered drug death rates comparable to or higher than some of the largest jurisdictions on the western shore.
According to state health data, Cecil County’s previous annual drug overdose death numbers are:
The new first-quarter 2014 statistics put Cecil County potentially on track for drug overdose deaths of 40 by year’s end —which would be a record number by a wide margin.
However, in recent days, Cecil County police and emergency responders have completed training to administer an anti-overdose medication—naloxone or Narcan— via nasal inhalers to counter-act the effects of drug overdoses. In addition, in May, the county’s Health Department began conducting training classes for citizens whose family or work situation puts them in contact with drug abusers and provides naloxone doses to administer in an emergency situation.
If these initiatives are successful, the current rate of drug overdose deaths might be reduced substantially as the year progresses. Karl Webner, the county Health Department’s overdose prevention co-ordinator, said 161 people have gone through the community training program and already officials know of three overdoses that were reversed through intervention with naloxone, which is provided at no cost to program participants.
The use of naloxone had already been expanded, starting late last year, by local ambulance crews – and that may have prevented overdose death numbers from being even higher so far this year. Basic life support ambulance services operated by local volunteer fire companies are now carrying naloxone, in addition to the advanced paramedic units operated by the county government that have carried the medication for years.
The new state data also shows a shift toward heroin as the drug causing overdose deaths. In Cecil County this year, there were 6 heroin deaths in the first three months. For the full year 2013, there were 11 heroin deaths in Cecil County.
At the same time, fatal overdoses from abuse of prescription drugs, such as pain-killers and other opioids, declined in Cecil County—from 12 in 2013 to 2 deaths in the first three months of this year.
Some drug experts and law enforcement officials warn that, with the decreasing availability of prescription drugs on the streets and widespread availability of cheap heroin, the risk of death rises due to impurities or heroin laced with other dangerous drugs.
“I have those concerns” about the shift to heroin among drug abusers, said Ken Collins, a senior local health department official who has been appointed as a “special adviser” to County Executive Tari Moore on drug issues. Most of the illicit drugs on the streets of Cecil County come from the nearby Wilmington, DE area, he said, where there has been a similar “surge” in overdose deaths recently.
“We’re in the middle of an epidemic,” Collins said. He emphasized that local officials were taking a multi-faceted approach to the crisis, “but it’s too early to judge” their success since most of the new initiatives have only been in place a few months.
A study commissioned by the health department concluded last year that Cecil County’s drug problem was the product of a “culture” of inter-related factors, including acceptance of drug usage in some sectors of the community, a poor economy, a lack of jobs and limited educational levels.
[SEE previous Cecil Times Special Report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/07/cecil-county-drug-crisis-culture-of-drug-abuse-pervades-county-poverty-lack-of-treatment-cited-in-new-study/ ]
Collins said the first step has been initiatives to reduce the “stigma” of seeking treatment for a drug problem and educating drug users and their families on available treatment options. A film, “The Anonymous People,” was screened throughout the county earlier this year, accompanied by discussions of help that is available to local residents.
Collins said the health department has a “treatment on demand” model—anyone can seek help and get assistance quickly through a range of options, including counseling, medication-aided treatment, or in-patient hospitalization.
However, the in-patient option has been complicated recently by the new national “affordable care” health law that expands health insurance to many people who lacked it in the past. Collins and Mike Massuli, acting program director at the local health department, said that private in-patient care facilities that the health department had contracted with in the past suddenly had a surge of new patients showing up with their own insurance, thus leaving fewer beds available for people referred by the county health agency.
But the insurance issue has had a reverse impact on the state-operated Whitsett Center in Chestertown, where a shortage of beds and high demand from uninsured patients had led to a four to six week waiting list for treatment. Collins said that the Whitsett Center waiting period is now down to one or two weeks, as patients who have insurance are opting for private facilities.
Collins said that many people, and local officials, in Cecil County had spent too much time arguing about “which treatment is the right treatment.” Instead, it should be realized that no one method works for everyone, he said, and “there are many different ways”—from peer counselors to methadone-aided treatment, to faith-based programs—that will help drug users to recovery.
But the drug death data so far this year indicate that, despite several years of public officials’ discussion on the need to step-up efforts to address the drug crisis, Cecil County is still in the early stages of finding effective solutions. And apart from the tragedy of drug-related deaths, it seems not a day goes by in the county without police reports of some increasingly bizarre incidents involving drug-seekers and confiscation of large stashes of illegal drugs.
Cecil County Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4), who has long criticized county programs and policies to deal with the drug crisis, said that the new numbers show a failure on the part of county government and the designated local Drug and Alcohol Council to address critical issues. “This is a result of the county and state not doing their job,” she said.
Broomell, who was recently removed as the County Council’s representative to the drug council, said the drug panel’s leaders had “misled” the public about the severity of the problems but now “they can’t hide it any more.”
A long-standing critic of Collins and his role in the drug council, Broomell reiterated her demand that he be fired or resign. She contends that Collins has pushed an agenda that was not properly reviewed and ratified by the broader council and has focused on methadone-maintenance programs.
‘Where the money has been going isn’t doing the job,” she said. Broomell has challenged clinics providing methadone treatment to drug addicts, saying they had failed to provide data showing such treatment actually worked as a long term solution. She favors in-patient detoxification followed by counseling and possible limited duration use of medications like methadone.
“What’s needed is for the drug council to operate as was intended” by state law creating the panel as a multi-faceted clearinghouse for drug policy and programs at the local level, Broomell said. “We need to contain this epidemic.”