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179: Westmoreland County sets drug overdose death record |

179: Westmoreland County sets drug overdose death record

| Friday, December 1, 2017 4:00 p.m
In an attempt to curb the growing problem of drug abuse, Hampton Township is hosting a roundtable summit to try and combat what is rapidly becoming an epidemic.
Capt. Bob Stafford of the Greensburg Police Department holds an empty heroin stamp bag. There is an increasing number of drug overdose deaths related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in Westmoreland County. (Trib photo)
Courtesy of the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration
This DEA photo shows about 2 milligrams of fentanyl, which is a potentially lethal dose of the prescription painkiller, especially when mixed with other drugs.
In this Aug. 9, 2016, file photo, a bag of 4-fluoro isobutyryl fentanyl, which was seized in a drug raid, is displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, Va.
Glenn A. Levtzow, 36, of Greensburg, is accused of fleeing a city apartment where a man overdosed on heroin.

With a month left in 2017, Westmoreland County has set a record in drug overdose deaths.

Coroner Ken Bacha said Friday that his office has confirmed 144 overdose deaths, with 35 suspected overdoses awaiting formal toxicology verification. The 179 deaths through November surpass the previous record of 174, set in 2016.

It marks the ninth consecutive year that the county’s overdose death toll has risen.

“At this rate, it looks like we’ll wind up with about 194 or 195 fatal overdoses by the end of the year, which is tragic,” Bacha said.

As to whether he expects the number to drop in 2018, Bacha offered an emphatic, “No.”

“I’m just not seeing any slowdown,” he said. “Particularly disturbing is the increase we’re seeing in fentanyl deaths.”

The synthetic opioid, many times more powerful than heroin, was developed as a painkiller and anesthetic for pharmaceutical uses. But it has become an attractive substance to manufacture illicitly in laboratories. New forms — they are made by tweaking the molecular structure — regularly pop up in heroin stamp bags and, subsequently, toxicology reports.

Bacha reported that among the 144 confirmed fatal overdoses this year, 105 — 73 percent — included fentanyl.

“We’re actually seeing people who have multiple drugs in their system. And we’re seeing a resurgence in cocaine use, too,” Bacha said.

Tim Phillips, executive director of the county’s drug overdose task force, was staggered by the fatal overdose number released Friday. And he’s perplexed by the rising number of deaths involving fentanyl.

“Ken Bacha has told me there’s not a whole lot of heroin out there anymore. … Most of the deaths are fentanyl-related,” Phillips said.

He noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin.

“It is frightening. But could you imagine the numbers we would have if we weren’t doing what we are doing in getting the word out there? “It would be much worse,” Phillips said. “I can say the (drug overdose task force) is continuing to work to make our communities safer, but we’ve got to learn how to engage more people, getting them involved in groups or support programs. … It’s sad, and we’re losing too many people.”

Like the coroner, Phillips does not expect the death numbers to drop in the near future.

“The CDC has said that it doesn’t see it peaking until 2020,” Phillips said.

Overdose deaths have reached epidemic levels statewide as well as nationally.

This year, the Drug Enforcement Administration field office in Philadelphia said 4,642 drug-related overdose deaths were reported by coroners and medical examiners across Pennsylvania in 2016. The number represents a 37 percent increase in such deaths from 2015.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.

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