Cecil County Names New Health Officer with Top Credentials; State Opioid Program Cites Cecil as 2nd Highest OD Death Rate

May 15, 2019


Cecil County will have a new, non-local Health Officer with impressive educational credentials and experience in public health issues, taking over an agency that has struggled to address the drug crisis even as a new state report shows the county again has the second-worst opioid overdose death rate in Maryland.

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy has announced his selection of Lauren Levy, of Towson, as the new health officer, coming to the county from executive and research positions in public health with the University of Maryland School of Medicine and School of Law. She will replace Laurie Humphries, a veteran employee of the local Health Department, who has been the Acting Health Officer since Stephanie Garrity announced her retirement in mid-2018.

Levy, who assumes her position later this month, will face the challenges highlighted in a new report issued by the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center (OOCC) that Cecil County’s opioid overdose death rate, measured on a population/ per-capita basis, was second only to Baltimore City in 2018 and also over a longer period from 2013 to 2017.

“I am privileged to welcome Ms. Lauren Levy to this exponentially important position in Cecil County,” McCarthy said in a statement. “I am confident that Ms. Levy is exceptionally prepared to lead the charge on tackling our county’s most important public health challenges: addiction and mental health, homelessness, communicable diseases and environmental well-being.”

Levy holds a Master’s degree in public health from Columbia University and a law degree with a concentration in health law and policy from the University of Maryland School of Law. She also received a bachelor’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins University. She has been Managing Director of the Law and Health Care Program with the University of Maryland law school and research associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Levy brings impressive credentials to the county health agency, which is technically a state agency but receives about 24 percent of its budget from Cecil County taxpayer funds. And coming from outside the local agency’s in-house promotional culture should bring a fresh perspective to the county’s significant health problems.

Garrity, who had no public health credentials and a night-school business master’s degree, came up through the ranks in the local Health Department and was often unprepared and flummoxed in coping with the staggering drug problems in the county—showing up at meetings with the County Council and admitting she had no idea what the local drug overdose death rates were although the data were available from the state Health Department. She also counted the local homeless population by phoning a few shelters instead of sending employees into the encampments where homeless people actually live.

Garrity’s most visible anti-drug initiative was a website and paid billboards promoting “re-write your script” as a puzzling message that sounded more like a website for aspiring movie screenwriters than a drug prevention and treatment program. She was appointed to the position in 2008, under the old County Commissioners’ form of government.

But under the county’s now Charter form of government, the county executive had a decisive role to play in filling the position upon Garrity’s retirement. McCarthy told Cecil Times that he conducted an extensive search, consulting with state health officials and leaders of other counties to seek out top notch candidates. A list of candidates, including two employees of the local health department, was compiled with the assistance of the county’s human resources department. McCarthy said Levy was “the standout candidate” for the position.

But in Cecil County, even “standouts” have a rocky road: the County Council argued, behind closed doors in recent secret worksessions, that its members should have a say in deciding who should get the health position, despite state law—and broader political realities– providing otherwise. Technically, the head of the local agency is a state employee and reports to the Maryland Department of Health; but McCarthy’s active role in recruiting candidates, and the shift to Charter government, put him firmly in charge of the selection picture, buttressed by his solid working alliance with Gov. Larry Hogan.

County Council President Bob Meffley (R-1) told Cecil Times that he and other Council members thought they should get first crack at assembling a list of candidates and making their own recommendation to the executive. He said he did not have a favored candidate for the job but was miffed that he had never met Levy and had only seen her resume, which he called “impressive,” before McCarthy advised the Council of his decision to choose her for the job. “They admit they should have consulted us sooner,” he said, and Council members have agreed with the Executive to meet informally once a week on pending issues so Councilors do not feel “blindsided” in the future.

(CECIL TIMES has contacted Ms. Levy for comment on her appointment and her views on key issues facing the county and will update this report upon her response. The announcement of her appointment stated that she would soon move to live in Cecil County.)

Meanwhile, a new report from the state Opioid Operational Command Center (OOCC)– now headed by Steve Schuh as executive director after he lost re-election as the Anne Arundel County Executive and was appointed to the state post by Gov. Hogan—concluded that Cecil County was second in the state, on a population-adjusted, per capita basis, only to Baltimore City in opioid overdose deaths in 2018 and for a broader time-frame of 2014-2017.

While heroin-related fatalities and prescription opioid deaths declined statewide for the second consecutive year, the deadly drug Fentanyl, either alone or mixed into other drugs, continued to be the most lethal illegal drug in the county and state. Fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by 17 percent in 2018 and accounted for approximately 88 percent of all opioid-related fatalities in 2018. Cocaine-related deaths in the state also continued to rise, in large measure because of rising mixing of Fentanyl with cocaine on the illicit drug market.

The total number of unintentional intoxication deaths from all types of drugs and alcohol in Maryland in 2018 was 2,385, an increase of 4.5 percent as compared to 2017. Opioids accounted for 88.6 percent of all such fatalities. But the report said it was the slowest rate of increases in opioid-related fatalities since 2011. And the report found some numbers were “encouragingly” lower, with 13 counties reporting declining numbers of opioid-related deaths in 2018.

But Cecil County, on a population-based, per capita rate, had the second-highest OD fatality rate in the state—second only to Baltimore City in 2018 and, on a broader timeframe, second only to Baltimore City from 2013-2017. The City’s death rate, per 100,000 population, was 50.8 persons, while Cecil County’s death rate per 100,000 population was 34.8. Statewide, the OD average death rate was 20.7 fatalities per 100,000 population.

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