BERLIN — An outbreak of overdoses linked to heroin laced with the deadly opioid fentanyl has hit close to home with dozen of deaths reported in Maryland, including three on the Eastern Shore, prompting officials to ramp up their enforcement and treatment programs.
The Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has confirmed an increase in the number of deaths linked to a potent and deadly batch of heroin tainted with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. At least 37 deaths in Maryland in recent months have been caused by the lethal drug combination in every corner of the state, including the Eastern Shore. Thus far, single overdose deaths have been reported in Wicomico, Somerset and Queen Anne’s counties.
No overdose deaths linked to the heroin-fentanyl combination have been reported in Worcester thus far. However, a spike in heroin use and the associated arrests and numbers of abusers seeking treatment in the county have prompted local officials to be on high alert.
“It’s out there,” said Sgt. Nate Passwaters of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office this week. “It may be coming to our community and we need to be aware of it. The abusers also need to be aware of it.”
Passwaters said this week heroin abuse has spiked in Worcester County over the last year or so. Overdoses have been reported, but none linked to the heroin laced with fentanyl yet. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), fentanyl is 80 times more powerful than morphine and hundreds of times more powerful than heroin. The presence of fentanyl in heroin dramatically increases the risk of an overdose death.
“Heroin is absolutely an issue in Worcester County,” said Passwaters. “Fortunately thus far we haven’t seen any overdoses related to the heroin laced with Fetanyl, but we are seeing overdoses.”
Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby is keenly aware of the spike in heroin usage in the county and the potential for overdose deaths related to the combination of heroin and fentanyl that has arrived in Maryland in recent months. Oglesby announced this week he will meet with U.S. District Attorney Rod Rosenstein and other officials on Friday to discuss the growing issue of heroin laced with fentanyl.
“We need to be informed as possible,” he said. “Meeting with officials from across the state as well as our federal partners will ensure that we address this issue before it becomes a problem for the Eastern Shore.”
Oglesby said the spike in fatalities across the state has necessitated prompt action from law enforcement and the safety net for abusers here.
“This is a real problem that’s very dangerous,” he said. “No one should die from an overdose and there are resources within the community designed to help those with addictions find a pathway to recovery.”
Oglesby also promised a ramped-up effort to eliminate the scourge of heroin use in the county from a law enforcement standpoint.
“It is important to send a reminder to those who might bring these poisons to our shores that there will be no leniency from this office and they will be held accountable for their actions,” he said.
Passwaters stopped short of calling heroin use an epidemic in Worcester, but the drug has proliferated in the last year for a variety of reasons.
“The whole rise of heroin cases in the mid-Atlantic region began in early 2012,” he said. “Prior to that, beginning in 2010, the big issue was abuse of prescription pills. The abusers of prescription pills have moved on to heroin because it’s cheaper and more readily available.”
Passwaters said attacking the heroin issue will require a multi-pronged attack including increased investigation and enforcement.
“Once we realized our cases were spiking up on heroin, we became very proactive,” he said. “We began working the overdose cases backwards to try to find the sources. We’re trying to attack the source and work our way back to the source to find out how this poison is getting into our community.”
Passwaters said the sheriff’s office has been meeting with the State’s Attorney’s Office, the county health department and the drug court to find a multi-pronged method of attacking the growing problem with heroin.
“We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “This is an issue where we’re going to have to take the demand out of the equation.”
The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is working with local officials on the potential epidemic.
“DHMH is reaching out to local behavioral health providers to ensure that they are fully informed about this dangerous and deadly trend,” said Dr. Gayle Jordan Randolph, Deputy Secretary for DHMH Behavioral Health Services.
Meanwhile, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler added, “Deaths due to the deadly heroin mixture appear to widespread in Maryland and not localized to any specific area. We have also seen overdose deaths due to fentanyl mixed with cocaine.”