In two months, Frederick County has seen 11 fatal opioid-related overdoses.
There have been 41 fatal overdoses, as of Sept. 3, according to statistics provided by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. There have been 194 non-fatal overdoses.
The recent numbers means the county is still facing an epidemic where a fatal overdose happens at least once a week, County Executive Jan Gardner said.
The drugs are getting stronger, she said, such as carfentanil and fentanyl, which have caused opioid-related overdoses to skyrocket since 2016.
“It also says we’re not making the progress we need to stop deaths in this county, even though we’re working hard,” Gardner said.
The county is on track to see numbers closer to those of 2016, said Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, director of the county’s health department. Brookmyer looks at the numbers provided by the state’s Department of Health, and while it only has numbers up until March, the first quarter painted a grim picture.
There were seven more deaths from drug and alcohol overdoses in the first quarter of 2018 compared to the first quarter of 2017. In 2017, there were 78 total fatal overdoses from all drugs and alcohol, which was a decrease of 10 from 2016, according to the state numbers.
So far in the first quarter, there has been 22 deaths from all drugs and overdoses. And while the numbers appear down from overdoses due to prescription opioids, there is a concerning uptick in deaths from fentanyl and cocaine, Brookmyer said.
According to recently published article in Science, it does not appear that the number of deaths in the county will be slowing down any time soon. The article in Science did not look at Frederick County specifically and it only looked at 1979 through 2016. But the national trends found by Dr. Hawre Jalal, a professor at University of Pittsburgh’s public health school, and authors suggest that the number of deaths in the country due to drugs will continue to rise.
Looking at individual drugs, Jalal and authors found that methadone and unspecified narcotics did not see a national rise in deaths. But every other examined drug did, including cocaine which had been on a decrease around 2006 until about 2011 or 2012, according to the study.
Unsurprisingly, synthetic opioids, like fentanyl or carfentanil, had a sharp increase in fatalities starting from 2013, while heroin had a large increase starting from 2010.
But when all the researchers examined the national deaths from drug use, the curve is increasing, without an indication of it plateauing. Looking at the curve, Jalal said he did not expect it to taper off anytime soon. That was a surprise, he said.
And while the data is not specific to Frederick County, the numbers reported by the sheriff’s office and the Department of Health suggest that Frederick is following national trends.
One reason that the epidemic continues to get worse is that people working to address the drug epidemic might not be targeting the right root causes. But Jalal said he does not know what those root causes are yet.
“That’s the million dollar question,” he said.
In Frederick, there are multiple players working to address the increasing deaths and non-fatal overdoses. There is training on naloxone, a drug that can reverse the fatal effects of an overdose provided by the health department, as well as other treatment services and awareness campaigns.
“We know that naloxone has been administered and saved lives,” Brookmyer said.
But Gardner and Brookmyer both said that the county needs more resources to better fight the epidemic. Gardner recently announced a possible location for a detoxification center, which she said would fill a gap in treatment for people who have a substance abuse disorder. But a project like that still costs $2 million.
Brookmyer said she would like to be able to provide more peer recovery services. The peers help a person on their recovery, from before entering a treatment program to concerns, like housing and employment, once someone exits a program, she said.
She’d also like to see more counseling services to address some of the underlying issues in substance abuse, like depression, anxiety and trauma. Brookmyer said some people turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.
In addition to services, people need to address the stigma associated with drug or alcohol use. It’s a chronic problem, just like high blood pressure, and people do not always stick to their treatment regiments, whether it is substance abuse problem or high blood pressure, Brookmyer said.
And people need to treat those with substance abuse disorder as they would someone who was diagnosed with cancer, she said.
“When we can lean in and help folks, we’ll be a stronger community overall,” Brookmyer said.