Heroin-related deaths in Maryland spiked 88 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to figures released Friday by the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and intoxication overdoses of all types now outnumber homicides in the state.
“Overdose is a public-health crisis in Maryland, as it is in many states,” said the agency’s secretary, Joshua Sharfstein, “and we are bringing everything we can to bear against this challenge.”
Cyndi Glass of Brookeville, whose son Jeremy died of a heroin overdose in 2008, gasped when she heard the statistics. “That is shocking. I knew it would increase, but I didn’t know it would increase that much,” she said.
Glass has been raising money for treatment, prevention and awareness programs because she had no idea, when her son was prescribed opioid painkillers after a football injury led to three knee surgeries, that it could possibly lead one day to a heroin addiction.
“He would have turned 26 yesterday,” she said.
Heroin use has been surging across the country — often as people addicted to prescription opiates switch to a similar, but cheaper and more readily available, high — with fatalities rising along with it.
In Virginia, heroin-related deaths more than doubled from 2011 through 2013, for a total of 213. In 2013 in Maryland, which has a more comprehensive system for tracking deaths, there were 464 — an 18 percent increase from the previous year.
Both states began training programs this year to help family members or friends learn to administer naloxone, a drug that can sometimes prevent an overdose. In Maryland, 2,000 people have been trained already in addition to the first-responders, Sharfstein said, and by July 1 all ambulances will carry naloxone.
Maryland saw a dramatic jump in the number of deaths from heroin spiked with non-prescription fentanyl. Typically they had seen two or three a month, Sharfstein said, “but in October we started to see 10, 15, 20 a month . . . and that has persisted, to a certain extent, into this year. That is a huge increase. Fentanyl is highly potent and definitely dangerous in combination with heroin. That is a huge challenge.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) created an interagency council to try to prevent overdose deaths, using some of the same techniques the state has used to understand and reduce the number of homicides.
One of his main goals has been to reduce intoxication deaths by 20 percent by the end of next year. (A graphic of a meter on a state Web site shows negative 7.4 percent progress toward that goal, since all intoxication deaths increased from 799 to 858 in 2013.)
Heroin-related deaths increased in western and central Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. And they more than doubled in Frederick County, from 10 in 2012 to 21 in 2013.
Over the past five to 10 years, heroin, once mainly associated with urban centers such as Baltimore, has spread throughout the state, Sharfstein said. (Baltimore had a large increase in heroin deaths from 2012 to 2013, as well.)
The state has launched a public-information campaign to counter opioid overdoses, trying to erase stigmas about treatment such as methadone and looping in the 211 call centers so that people can ask where to find help.
Officials hope to provide everyone leaving detention centers with information warning about overdose deaths: Former inmates can easily overdose after being off the drug if they go back to their original dose once they're freed from incarceration because of lost tolerance. And officials will study cases, looking for common factors (such as certain doctors, in the case of prescription-drug overdoses), recent release from prison and so on.
The governor is also asking the boards that oversee prescribers to require all practitioners to take continuing education in two areas: Appropriate opioid prescribing and addiction treatment.
“It may be that we’re making some progress,” Sharfstein said. “It’s just hard to say, given the enormous increases affecting the East Coast right now. Everything we’re doing is really not enough to turn the corner.”