Last week brought a surge of suspected overdose deaths for Howard County, continuing a trend that might lead to the deadliest year on record for the area in terms of drug overdoses.
According to Howard County Coroner Steve Seele, his office responded to three suspected overdose deaths last week. Two of those occurred in just one day, causing concerns from nonprofits, which posted on social media warning of a “bad batch” and urging those dealing with addiction to not use alone and carry naloxone. The suspected overdoses added to a mounting total of local deaths this year.
Data provided by the coroner indicated there have been 19 confirmed overdose deaths so far in Howard County this year. In addition, eight more suspected overdose deaths were pending toxicology, but the coroner believed they likely will be confirmed to be overdose deaths. That would bring the year’s total to 27 overdose deaths, and if the trend holds there could be more than 50 overdose deaths logged in 2020.
The worst year currently on record for overdose deaths in Howard County came in 2017 when 44 died due to overdoses. That year triggered the launch of Turning Point Systems of Care, and since then overdose deaths have remained lower. In 2018, 33 overdose deaths were recorded by the coroner’s office. Last year 31 such deaths occurred.
Seele credited programs such as Turning Point for reversing the trend of overdose deaths.
“My hope is that as the programs open up and we get people plugged back into these programs, we will see these numbers drop,” said Seele. “I think one thing this has shown is that the programs the county has been involved in, whether it was drug court, Turning Point, something about these programs were working. It wasn’t perfect; it’s never perfect. There’s always room for growth. But I think it was a learning tool to say we were on the right track. Because when these programs stopped these numbers soared.”
Turning Point is the most public effort to combat the drug crisis. Launched on the heels of the worst overdose year on record, the collaborative community effort resulted in a program that provided resources for those dealing with mental health and addiction issues.
In mid-March, when travel restrictions went into place, Turning Point was forced to pivot, shifting many of its programs to online formats. According to Turning Point Family Navigator Sherry Rahl, recovery meetings were changed to being held over Zoom, and “recovery trees” were formed, where anyone referred to Turning Point for services was paired with a recovery coach who could check in on those seeking services daily or weekly, depending upon need.
As social isolation went on due to COVID-19, Rahl said calls poured in to Turning Point.
In January, 595 calls came into Turning Point from those seeking services. February was similar with 556 calls made into the service provider, and Rahl said these totals were representative of normal months for Turning Point. But in March, with travel restrictions put into place in the middle of that month, 1,019 calls were recorded. Then in April, 1,456 calls were placed with Turning Point, followed by 1,436 in May. Rahl said June likely would end with around 1,252 calls.
Client meetings also increased dramatically, with about 150 to 200 such meetings being held each month, according to Rahl. June is predicted to end with about 300 such meetings having been held.
Rahl said the pandemic was taking its toll, and more staff members were brought on to help with the increase in need.
“One of the biggest things we deal with in life is relationships,” said Rahl. “When you are stuck and isolated from human beings that you need to relate with in a personal manner, that is very, very difficult. Isolation for addiction and mental health is never a good thing. There are some people that thrive in that alone zone, but most people need that interaction.”
Other factors also may have exacerbated the issue, according to Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman.
For example, the pandemic also forced the Howard County Probation Department to alter its practices. In normal times probation officers make regular visits to clients, many of whom struggle with addiction issues. But COVID-19 halted such visits.
“People on probation who were used to weekly visits and accountability with their probation officers, that also was very difficult to accomplish because obviously we weren’t able to do face-to-face visits in that scenario,” said Wyman. “So, obviously, when you have an accountability piece like that fall off, that also hurts in regard to people staying clean and staying safe.”
The rest of the year represents something of a mixed bag by local officials in terms of expectations with the overdose trend.
Certain services are spinning back into normalcy, such as Turning Point and court programs like probation, providing reason for optimism. Similarly, two different in-patient drug treatment centers are also in the works. Wyman said Hope for Hurting may open in July, while Valley of Grace is going through the public approval process.
But, Rahl said she still was concerned about another uptick in overdose deaths.
“Do I feel like we’re out of the weeds yet? No. Why? Because I don’t think I’ve seen the financial crisis hit us yet as to what families will do because there are people that are lacking work or struggling to get back to the job or full-time,” said Rahl.
But, local officials contended that if it weren’t for local efforts, the number of deaths would be higher.
“I think it shows that this whole COVID crisis has affected people across the board,” said Wyman. “There has not been any group or organization that has not been affected by it. It does hurt my heart to see the number of overdose deaths go up, but it does strengthen our resolve that there is much more to do.”