Heroin remains an undisputed concern in Frederick County, but recent reports from regional agencies reveal varying counts of the number of people who died from heroin-related overdoses in 2014.
An annual report released by the state health department several weeks ago listed 26 heroin-related overdose deaths for Frederick County last year.
However, data compiled by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office from four of the five law enforcement agencies operating in the county reported 27 deaths from heroin-related overdoses in the same period.
“I’m probably more liberal in my classification,” said Nathan Michael, the sheriff’s office crime analyst who routinely tracks the number of heroin-related overdoses in the county.
Michael manually logs each heroin-related overdose, making the determination of whether a person’s death should be categorized as a heroin-related overdose after reading autopsy results and skimming reports stored in a law enforcement database looking for keywords such as “heroin” and “needle.”
“We don’t have any way to just click a button and bring [up] heroin stats,” he said.
This method takes time and can lead to mistakes, as Michael discovered later this year. He had accidentally labeled five heroin-related overdoses in 2014 as fatal, putting the total of heroin-related overdose deaths at 32 instead of the actual 27, he said.
“The total number [of heroin-related overdoses] had been correct, but breakdown of fatal and nonfatal had been incorrect. ... That was my fault,” Michael said.
The sheriff’s office reported a total of 98 heroin-related overdoses in Frederick County last year: 71 nonfatal and 27 fatal, according to Michael.
The data include numbers from the sheriff’s office as well as the Frederick, Thurmont and Brunswick police departments. Maryland State Police do not collect data on heroin-related overdoses.
The Vital Statistics Administration uses a similar process to assemble the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s annual report on drug- and alcohol-related deaths.
Using toxicology and autopsy results from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and additional resources when needed, DHMH works to classify each unintentional intoxication death, according to Isabelle Horon, the director of the Vital Statistics Administration.
“We don’t include homicides, suicides or natural deaths. ... What we’re looking for [are] overdoses that occur because the individual took the drugs, not intending for death to be the outcome,” Horon said.
Determining how to categorize each death can be difficult, Horon said, especially if the results show various drugs and alcohol were involved.
In 2014, 25 percent of heroin-related deaths occurred in combination with alcohol, 22 percent with cocaine and 18 percent with fentanyl, according to the report.
“If the cause of death says heroin, that’s simple; we know it’s a heroin death,” Horon said.
But for deaths that appear to involve a combination of substances, the Vital Statistics Administration does more research, looking at scene investigation reports and notes from investigators.
For example, “the investigator may write in his report, ‘This was a known heroin addict ... [person was found] using heroin, found spoons and needles’ ... [so] obviously it’s a heroin-related death,” Horon said.
Once the drugs and alcohol involved in the death are identified, the fatality would be listed under each substance category.
Frederick County ranked sixth statewide for highest number of heroin-related overdose deaths. Baltimore city and Baltimore County topped the list with 192 and 83 reported deaths, respectively.
Dorchester County had zero reported drug- and alcohol-related intoxication deaths in 2014, according to the report.
Dorchester County “was the only jurisdiction that had no deaths,” Horon said. “In earlier years, many of the smaller counties had very few deaths. Unfortunately, the counts are growing everywhere.”