Washington County officials appoint group to examine drug overdoses

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Heroin laced with a potent, illicitly produced painkiller likely contributed to the spike in overdose deaths in Washington County, prompting officials to form a "working group" to address the problem.

County Coroner Timothy Warco said the official 2013 count of 58 overdose deaths included 27 from heroin. That total now has reached 60 with seven more cases awaiting toxicology reports, he said Thursday. At least five of those deaths now appear to have been caused by the deadly drug combination.

Officials said the county total is sure to exceed 60, prompting concern, especially considering the county had only two deaths in 1992, with single-digit totals in the 1990s rising to the 20s in the 2000s. Since 2010, the numbers have risen to 31 or higher.

During a news conference Thursday, county District Attorney Eugene A. Vittone II and Mr. Warco announced creation of the working group to develop a county-wide education action plan designed to curb that trend.

The group will participate in a roundtable discussion Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and other state officials.

Mr. Warco said heroin laced with the synthetic painkiller fentanyl could have caused five or more of the 58 drug overdose deaths in the county in 2013, and possibly more. He said he didn't routinely test for the painkiller in heroin deaths due to cost.

But news of 22 deaths and an unknown number of non-fatal overdoses from the drug combination in the past month has persuaded him to begin testing for the drug when evidence suggests its involvement.

"In the last four or five months I've investigated five deaths where the decedent had a syringe in the body," Mr. Warco said, noting those deaths likely involved heroin and the painkiller.

Another recent death may have been caused by the drug combination, but officials await toxicology results, state police said.

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578. First Published February 13, 2014 12:10 PM

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