CECIL COUNTY — The number of fatal drug overdoses in Cecil County continues to rise, with May entering the record books as the deadliest month since since Ray Lynn, this county’s heroin coordinator, started keeping a real-time tally in January 2017.
Lynn reported that overdoses killed 14 people in Cecil County during May, a month in which 45 non-fatal ODs also were reported. Before that point, the highest number of fatal overdoses occurred in August 2017, when 11 people in this county lost their lives to ODs.
The 14 fatal drug overdoses recorded in May translate to someone dying from an OD in Cecil County approximately once every two days.
“May has proven to be the deadliest month yet,” Lynn said, before noting that coronavirus-related hurdles have caused some unavoidable lags in reporting and then qualifying, “That number likely is even higher because I’m still getting info for May. There is a delay in getting some of the reports, so it’s been under-reported.”
Lynn also told the Cecil Whig that, since the start of 2020, a total of 41 people in Cecil County have died from overdoses, while 180 others survived their over-consumptions of drugs.
He further explained that 94 percent of those drug overdoses involved heroin or heroin mixed with fentanyl. The remaining six percent of those overdoses related to oxycodone and methamphetamine — there has been one fatal meth overdose so far this year.
During the same five-month time period last year, there were 24 fatal drug overdoses logged, 17 fewer than has been recorded since Jan. 1, according to Lynn, who further reported that the 41 fatal drug overdoses from January through May represent a 42 percent increase compared to the 24 recorded during the same time period in 2019.
Lynn also reported that there were more non-fatal drug overdoses recorded from January through May 2019, however, with 223 reflecting last year’s tally and 180 representing this year’s count, he noted.
Theory for the uptick
Setting the foundation for a possible cause-and-effect explanation, of those 41 predominantly heroin-related fatal drug overdoses in Cecil County since the start of 2020, 31 of them have been recorded since March 5, when Gov. Larry Hogan issued his first of many emergency health orders aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
(It is noteworthy that, during roughly that same time period, 30 people in Cecil County had died from the coronavirus, according to Cecil County Health Department statistics.)
In addition to closing courthouses and government agencies to the general public, except for people classified as essential and for matters deemed emergency, the gubernatorial directives prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people, until recently, resulting in a nearly three-month-long period in which group drug counseling and support programs such as Narcotics Anonymous were either halted or modified to remote meetings via Zoom and similar methods.
The Cecil County Adult Drug Court program, which has approximately 90 participating drug-related defendants, stopped its weekly Friday courtroom sessions for a few weeks at that outset after the pandemic reached Maryland, before resuming through Zoom.
“Social distancing and other COVID-19-related issues have caused relapses. The support groups stopped meeting or they weren’t meeting like they used to. Support is a big thing when you’re in recovery. When you remove that support system, that can lead to relapses,” Lynn opined.
Ray’s comment echoed ones made last month by Cecil County Circuit Court Judge Keith A. Baynes, who has presided over the Cecil County Adult Drug Court for nine years, and Sheri Lazarus, coordinator of that program.
“It is a daily struggle for them, and they need that structure,” Baynes said, referring to adult drug court defendants who are battling their addictions. “Not only does it provide structure, it allows them to talk to their case manager regularly and to get treatment.”
Lazarus told the Cecil Whig, “The purpose is to give them structure and, when this pandemic hit, we were very concerned about them losing that structure. We didn’t want them to fall back to where they were, so we had to think outside the box and we did.”
The program, now functioning remotely for the most part, keeps the defendants closely monitored, because drug-testing is one of the components of the adult drug court program. These days, amid the coronavirus pandemic, drug-testing is strategically performed inside a first-floor bathroom about 10 feet away from the Cecil County Circuit Courthouse lobby.
“Testing is done with all precautions. There is social distancing. It is done one person at a time. The next person waits outside. Everyone wears a mask,” Baynes outlined.
Lazarus reported that the continued testing, amid the coronavirus pandemic, allows her four case managers — three full-time and one part-time — to act quickly if a drug court defendant has relapsed. They are able to steer them to treatment programs and, in rare cases because of the pandemic, even place them in residential treatment facilities, she said.
“I’m not saying we haven’t had some relapses, because we definitely have. But a lot of them are maintaining their sobriety through all of this,” Lazarus said, acknowledging that coronavirus-related “stay-at-home” orders and directives to wear masks in certain public places, as well as the loss of employment for some, creates stress, which can be a catalyst for relapses.
Because of the restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lazarus’ staff created a Smart Recovery Group, which meets remotely in conference fashion every Tuesday.
“It allows them to talk about things they are struggling with, whether it is their sobriety or the pandemic itself,” Lazarus said of the Smart Recovery Group, which has proved to be a solid supplement to the adult drug court program.
Jennifer Tuerke, executive director of Voices of Hope, a Cecil County recovery advocacy nonprofit, told the Cecil Whig that the coronavirus-related restrictions have greatly compromised drug treatment and counseling programs.
(VOH is comprised of 13 employees and 15 volunteers, who, as part of their outreach duties, still man a 24-hour crisis hotline to help addicts seeking treatment. The crisis hotline number is 443-993-7055.)
Tuerke pointed out that a key residential drug treatment center, the Whitsitt Center in Chestertown, closed amid the pandemic and then emphasized, “Up to 70 percent of the Whitsitt Center patients are from Cecil County.”
(Patients at that center were transferred to numerous other facilities in Maryland, including Bel Air and Laurel, and in Pennsylvania, including Kennett Square.)
Although support groups switched to remote methods to hold meetings amid the pandemic, Tuerke believes that disconnects have occurred as a result.
“The 12-step fellowships transitioned pretty quickly, it was good for established people (in the programs), but it posed problems for new people,” Tuerke said, explaining that it is much easier to form bonds with others in recovery when meeting in the same room.
Tuerke also believes that remote meetings have created a barrier for some older people in recovery.
“Older people in the programs are used to going to a meeting on certain nights, at certain places, in a certain way,” Tuerke explained, adding, “There are some older people who are not comfortable with computers.”
Rich Raftery, who celebrated his 30th anniversary of sobriety on May 31, counts himself among those people who had a tough time adjusting to the new normal regarding remote support group meetings, he said. Rafferty was able to persevere, however, he added.
“It was not a meeting to me. I always looked forward to being in the same room with the people, because you have the feeling of togetherness. I believe a lot of people held on through it, but I also believe some people slipped off because of it,” said Raftery, who has served as one of the CCHD’s drug and alcohol services peer recovery advocates for several years.
He quickly qualified, “COVID put the brakes on a lot of things and, when it happened, it was a shock to everybody. It has been difficult, but I think we’ve done pretty good under the circumstances. You can’t look at it as just good or just bad, you have to look at the mix. There have been positive things and negative things that have happened.”
Tuerke also believes that coronavirus-related restrictions at Union Hospital in Elkton have weakened efforts by CCHD peer recovery advocates, who, when the system is operating under normal circumstances, strive to contact people within 24 hours after they have suffered an overdose or have sought help at that medical center.
Ideally, those contacts are made in person. However, under coronavirus-related policies limiting public access to Union Hospital, those peer advocates have not be able to enter the medical center to meet with people who have suffered an overdose or are seeking help, she noted.
“Not having peer support go into the hospital to encourage and guide people needing or seeking help has made it even more difficult,” said Tuerke, who opined that a face-to-face interaction is the most effective way to lead someone into treatment.
This is the way the system is designed to work: When Lynn receives a real-time report of a drug overdose in Cecil County from police officers, paramedics or family members, he contacts peer advocates, who, in turn, contact the person in need within 24 hours after the OD is reported. Peer advocates strive for in-person contact with the person in need, whether at the hospital or at the person’s residence, but they also rely on phone communication.
Help still available
Ken Collins, director of the Cecil County Health Department’s Addiction Services Division, reported that, not only has there been a recent increase in drug overdoses, the percentage of fatal drug overdoses in relationship to non-fatal drug overdoses has been climbing, too.
“Based on our read of the (Cecil County) Sheriff’s Office provisional data, about 10 percent of all overdose incidents were fatal during calendar years 2018 and 2019. However, the fatality rate appeared to increase to 17 percent during January through April 2020,” Collins summarized.
He then noted that, in May, which proved to be the deadliest month here since January 2017, 23 percent of all drug overdoses in Cecil County were fatal.
“While we’re seeking to understand all of the multiple variables which inform these numbers, the increase is dramatic and concerning,” Collins commented.
Since the pandemic reached Maryland in March, health providers have found ways to maintain services, though, according to Collins.
“Local behavioral health providers remain operational. While treatment processes adapted to cope with COVID-19, none of our local substance use disorder treatment agencies closed during the pandemic. Providers have been innovative and creative, and continue to accept new admissions,” he said.
Collins also reported that CCHD officials keep in “regular contact” with the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office and that the health department is “continuing outreach to survivors of overdose — offering treatment and resources.”
In addition, the CCHD and community partners have been continuing to provide overdose response training and have been distributing naloxone, which quickly reverses the affects and heroin, and other harm reduction supplies.
(Tuerke told the Cecil Whig that, during a campaign in May, VOH volunteers and employees distributed nearly 500 doses of naloxone in Cecil County neighborhoods that — based on drug overdose statistics — have been identified as high-risk areas for ODs.)
“The most important message for our community is that treatment saves lives and treatment is available,” Collins said.
Anyone seeking help finding treatment or anyone wanting to speak with a peer recovery specialist is urged to contact the Health Department’s Division of Addiction Services at 410-996-5106. Voices of Hope provides similar services at 443-993-7055.
Information on addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery support also can be found at the Cecil County Health Department’s “go-to” website: www.rewriteyourscript.org/ At that site, people should click “local support” for access to resources, including the addresses and phone numbers for care.