By Joanna Sperapani
Elm Staff Writer
On March 1, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in Maryland due to the vast increase in heroin use. This semester, the Washington College campus was impacted by the epidemic when a non-student living in the Kent Crossing apartments overdosed and was sent to the hospital. This incident comes after an alarming rise in opioid use in Kent County and the surrounding areas.
“The opioid abuse is out of control. Last year in the county, there were five fatalities as a result of opioids, and 19 other overdoses that were actually reported,” Kent County Sheriff John F. Price said.
Opioid addiction is not a big problem at WC, but there is a concern that, as the drugs are so prevalent in the county, this could change.
The first campus incident was three years ago when heroin was found in a student’s vehicle.
“We did an intervention with that student, had him withdraw and go home for the spring semester to go through a program. Unfortunately, he came out of the program… was home for about a week, and they found him — he had died of an overdose in his home back in Connecticut,” Gerald Roderick, director of Public Safety, said.
This spring semester there have been two incidents, both involving non-students.
“We responded to [the Kent Crossing] case. I believe a deputy administered Narcan,” Price said. Narcan is a life-saving drug in the form of a nasal spray that stops the effect of an overdose by waking up the brain.
The second incident was in a parking lot on-campus, and led to hospitalization and police involvement.
“Four out of five people who become addicted to opioids were prescribed them for pain. There’s an underlying systemic issue… due to withdrawal they will start to supplement on the street,” Tim Dove, the local addictions authority for Kent County, said. Dove works as a liaison between a local jurisdictional standpoint and the governor and oversees local behavioral health needs, including substance abuse services and mental health services.
Opioids can be plant-based narcotics with a morphine base, such as heroin, or a synthetic version of the drug that originates from pharmaceuticals, such as Percocet or Oxycodone. The drugs are extremely dangerous. Addiction often stems from prescription medications in Kent County. Opioids repress the central nervous system, leading to an overdose in the brain’s receptor sites and the eventual shutdown of the body.
Another problem is heroin cut with other substances like Fentanyl. “That’s what is creating most of the overdose deaths now. It’s a chronic pain reliever that is significantly lethal in very small doses, even in trace amounts,” Dove said.
He estimates that 25 to 35 kilograms of Fentanyl were confiscated last year in Maryland, reportedly enough to kill the population of the entire state.
“The heroin started and the wave of Fentanyl came right behind it. We had 1,400 overdose deaths in 2016 in the state of Maryland, and about 85 to 95 percent of those are opioid related deaths. Overdoses are happening all the time. It’s rampant, not just here in Kent County, but Cecil County has one of the highest heroin abuse rates; they have on average three heroin overdoses a day,” Dove said.
“Fortunately we are not seeing the violent crime that is usually associated with heroin use, but right now it appears to be the drug of choice. The heroin is what’s killing people,” Price said.
The county is attempting to combat the rise in drug abuse through medical assistance, therapy, and preventative and awareness tactics.
Vivitrol, a once a month injection, has the ability to destroy the high that opioids provide and can help an addict regain quality of life.
As of April, there are two programs in Kent County that have medication assisted treatment for addicts: Community Behavioral Health and Healthy Connections. The former has 40 beds that serve the surrounding seven counties for inpatient treatment.
“We know that Vivitrol is scientifically proven to prevent overdose deaths. It does for them biologically what they cannot do for themselves behaviorally. It also works for alcoholism. But addicts are afraid about what is in this medication, despite never knowing what is in the substance they abuse,” Dove said.
The current focus of overdose prevention is on education.
“The state’s attorney, myself, and Tim Dove have gone into the schools [Kent County Middle School and Kent County High School] and shown a film, called ‘Chasing the Dragon.’ Then there was a discussion and distribution of information about opioid use,” Price said.
Signs have been installed in town to keep track of the current number of overdoses in the county this year. As of April 3, that number is five.
There is an Opioid Operational Command Center (OOCC) opening in every county in Maryland, and one will be starting up in Chestertown very soon.
“The police, EMS, medical personnel, everyone; we’re all coming together to learn how to fight this,” Dove said.
Dove is also incredibly passionate about as many people as possible becoming certified to administer Narcan.
“We need to get to WC and educate the students on the drugs, the signs and symptoms of an overdose, what do you do in that instance, and get them trained to provide life-saving medication. They’ll have the information and they’ll know what to look for… I believe my responsibility to the students is to prepare them for a crisis. Narcan is simple and it saves lives. I want to empower the students to know how to save a life, should they ever need to,” Dove said.
The Department of Public Safety applied for training in Narcan administration many years ago, and was recertified this past January. The Kent County Sheriff’s Office also carries Narcan kits in their cars.
“It’s something we need to be prepared for. There are interventions we can do on campus with students who are using heroin — through Health Services, through the Wellness offices, Student Affairs Office — there are people that can reach out and get individuals help because it is a very addictive drug and people get caught up in it, further than they ever wanted,” Roderick said.
All parties urge any student who encounters an individual who has overdosed to immediately reach out for medical assistance.
“We encourage folks to call if they need help. There are no criminal consequences for calling,” Price said.
For help, contact the Maryland Crisis Hotline, 1-800-422-0009.