Westmoreland overdose deaths taper off, trend could be regional
Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha released the 2017 year-end statistical report Wednesday that shows the county reached the predicted overdose death tally of 193, a new record.
But it is what last year’s records don’t show that has him optimistic: drug deaths are declining.
“I know it’s early, but our overdose numbers are way down this year. We’re holding out hope that it’s a reality and not just a quirk,” Bacha said.
The county overdose death total last year surpassed the prior record of 174 set in 2016 and marked the ninth consecutive year that the death toll rose.
Through March 1, however, the coroner’s office had investigated 23 fatal overdoses, which puts the county on pace for 138 deaths this year — a 29 percent decline.
Bacha said he noticed the overdose death numbers start to fall late last year.
“In late summer we were predicting between 205 to 210 deaths, but we ended at 193,” he said. “I can’t say for sure what the reason is. I hope that it’s all the things we have working right now … the county’s task force, prevention, treatment, the availability of Narcan and, of course, law enforcement has made a number of significant arrests.”
Perhaps the biggest reason is general public awareness of the magnitude of the opioid epidemic, Bacha noted.
“Maybe it’s all starting to sink in,” he said.
A Tribune-Review report on Dec. 29 on the rising opioid death toll revealed that from 2007 through 2016, opioids claimed 825 lives in Westmoreland County.
Fatal overdoses declined last year in other counties in the region.
Indiana County Coroner Jerry Overman Jr. reported 40 overdoses, down from 53 in 2016.
Washington County Coroner Tim Warco’s office investigated 97 overdose deaths in 2017 versus 109 in 2016.
Like Westmoreland, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed more overdose deaths in 2017 — 717 — than in 2016, when 650 were investigated, according to overdosefreepa.com, a website run by the University of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Opioid Overdose Reduction Technical Assistance Center.
Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams could not be reached for comment on whether the decline in fatal overdoses extended into this year.
The drop in Indiana County is dramatic, according to the coroner.
“We just have five overdose cases at this point, and last year we had six just in January,” Overman said.
Spokesman Nate Wardle said the Department of Health hasn’t received updated reports from the state coroner’s association and can’t yet determine whether overdoses are dropping statewide.
“Through the (state) opioid operational command center, we know that there have been over 6,700 naloxone reversals from police, and over 1,400 doses administered by emergency medical services in 2018,” Wardle said.
Coroners and other experts attribute the decline in part to the wide availability of Narcan, which reverses the effects of an overdose, and better public awareness.
“It’s tough saying why, but I think we have a lot of things coming into play,” Overman said. “You have law enforcement really coming down hard, and the public awareness about the harm it can do, and the help that is out there has really increased through our drug and alcohol commission. And I know we have Narcan practically everywhere now. … People are treated before they die.”
Tim Phillips, Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force director, said, “It’s really hard to pinpoint a particular reason, but we’re all keeping our fingers, and toes, crossed that the numbers continue to decline. Maybe all of our combined efforts are beginning to shine through.
“But I want to point out that we should remain very cautious. … It’s still way too early. But we are very, very hopeful,” he said.
Phillips said too many people are still dying, despite a wide network of efforts.
“You do have families being more aware, the medical community working and locally the faith community has become involved. Law enforcement efforts and the availability of Narcan have also made an impact,” Phillips said.
“The declining numbers of deaths, however early, has given our task force a lot of optimism to go full steam ahead with our efforts,” Phillips said.
A troubling trend in Westmoreland’s 2017 statistics is that fentanyl-related deaths continued to climb, the coroner said.
“We had the highest amount of fentanyl-related overdoses (141) in history. The fentanyl deaths increased 38 percent since 2016 and 463 percent since 2015,” Bacha said.
Because fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, less of it can be packaged in stamp bags that typically are sold as heroin. Police have reported seeing stamp bags purported to be heroin that contain little or no heroin at all, but rather fentanyl or a mixture of both.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, email@example.com or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.