Howard County experienced its deadliest quarter for drug overdose deaths in years during the stretch of months where COVID-19 lockdowns were most strict.
Fifteen county residents died of a drug overdose from April through the end of June, according to numbers released by the Howard County Coroner’s Office Thursday, the most the county has seen in a single quarter in recent years. Not even in 2017, the county’s deadliest year for drug overdoses, did quarterly overdose deaths ever top 14.
The total confirmed cases of overdose deaths for the county through June is 24, putting the county on pace to top 2017’s record of 44 drug overdose deaths and already close to topping the number of deaths, 31, seen in all of 2019.
The county recorded 33 overdose deaths in 2018, 24 overdose deaths in 2016 and 34 in 2015.
Earlier this year, county officials said they expected overdose deaths to spike during the COVID-19 lockdowns as people were told to stay at home, which helped stop the spread of the virus at the time but left addicts and recovering addicts at risk since in-person therapy and support are needed to combat addiction.
Of the 15 confirmed cases, 12 were the result of opiate abuse. Of the opiate cases, one involved heroin and eight involved fentanyl. Methamphetamine was involved in three of the cases and 10 cases involved non-opiate polysubstance abuse, which includes benzodiazepines and other non-scheduled legend prescription drugs, according to the release. Two additional cases are pending toxicology results.
The coroner’s office is not only seeing an increase in overdose deaths but also an increase in death investigations and autopsies performed, compared to last year.
Howard County Coroner Steve Seele told the county council Tuesday that his office has responded to roughly 64 more calls so far this year, compared to the first half of last year.
“This year we have been hit extensively, unfortunately, with death investigations,” Seele said.
According to the coroner’s office, 83 of the county’s 309 total deaths in the second quarter were investigated by the coroner’s office. So far in 2020, the office has conducted 172 death investigations. That’s just 72 fewer than 2019’s total of 245 death investigations.
Of those 83 second-quarter deaths, 43 autopsies were conducted. In total, there have been 81 autopsies performed this year as of June 30, outpacing 2019’s total of 126.
The office is also seeing an increase in violent deaths compared to last year.
While there were no homicides recorded in the county for the second quarter, there were seven suicides for a mid-year total of 11. The county recorded 12 suicides in all of 2019.
Because of the increase in death investigations and autopsies, the coroner’s office has depleted its autopsy fund faster than expected. Of the $175,000 budgeted for the autopsy fund for 2020, Seele said he had just $18,103 left.
As such, Seele asked for $95,000 more in his autopsy budget and $5,000 more to pay part-time deputy coroner salaries. Both requests were approved by the county council.