Westmoreland County seeing drug overdose surge

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Westmoreland County remains on track to set a record for drug overdose deaths this year with 60 fatalities confirmed or strongly suspected so far in 2013.

That number, with five months to go, compares with 78 fatalities last year. The 2012 statistic was itself a new high for the county, according to Coroner Kenneth A. Bacha.

The growing number of deaths has given added importance to the work underway for the past several months by the county's new drug task force.

"This is a crisis that has grown to epidemic proportions," county Commissioner Ted Kopas said. "It's a countywide problem that knows no geographic, gender or socioeconomic boundaries."

Mr. Bacha and Mr. Kopas are members of the drug task force steering committee that has met regularly to gather and review statistical information about the county's experiences with drug deaths. This "root cause analysis" is a first step to finding solutions to the problem, officials said.

The steering committee met this week and is likely to get together at least one more time in September before a task force education session tentatively planned for October.

As many as 50 community stakeholders will be invited to the education session, according to Dirk Matson, county human services director. He and Colleen Hughes, executive director of the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission, are co-chairs of the drug task force. The stakeholders will include state legislators, school district representatives, district judges and county judges.

"We want to get everyone on the same page," Mr. Matson said. "It has to be an all-hands-on-deck effort," Mr. Kopas said.

October's education session is likely to be followed by a private brainstorming session where task force members will be able to propose and discuss ways to reduce the county's drug problem, Mr. Matson said.

Initial examination of the county's drug statistics already has turned up some unexpected findings.

While heroin has been linked to about one-third of fatal drug overdoses, prescription drugs -- often in multisubstance combinations -- were involved in the other two-thirds.

"Rarely is the cause of death a single drug," Mr. Bacha said. "More often it's something like heroin plus Xanax." Xanax is the brand name for a medicine prescribed for a variety of ills including anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia.

While drug deaths are by no means a problem limited to Westmoreland County, the community does face some unusual challenges. Mr. Bacha noted that there has been no in-patient treatment facility for drug users in the county for a decade.

The problem of drug abuse has spurred Westmoreland County families touched by the problem to take action. Carmen Capozzi and his family started Sage's Army after Mr. Capozzi's son, Sage, died of a drug overdose in March 2012. After her 18-year-old son Jonathan died of a drug overdose in February, Rachele Morelli raised money for a documentary about his life. The documentary, which also provides information on prevention and recovery programs, is to be distributed to schools and church groups.

It is not just teenagers who are dying of drug abuse. Mr. Kopas said. In statistical terms, the typical victim is more likely to be a 40-year-old male, he said.

"And this is not a problem limited to 'bad' neighborhoods," Mr. Kopas said.

The number of accidental drug-related deaths has grown dramatically over the past decade. The number has risen from 22 in 2002 to 78 last year, an increase of 255 percent. By comparison, 41 people died in traffic crashes last year.

The Westmoreland drug-death numbers are outpacing national trends, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Statistics for 2010, the last year for which national numbers are available, showed 38,329 fatalities. That compares to 16,849 deaths in 1999, an increase of 127 percent.

Westmoreland's rate was about 21 overdose deaths per 100,000 population. That number was below Washington County's 2012 rate of 24 deaths per 100,000 people but higher than Butler County's rate of 11 fatalities per 100,000.

Among the ideas being considered by the drug task force is the creation of a special drug court. More than 2,000 similar courts have been created around the country. Allegheny County's drug court has operated since 1998. It diverts some of those charged with drug-related offenses into intensive treatment programs as an alternative to jail.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said he backed the idea.

"With the enormity of the problem we are facing in Pennsylvania and in Westmoreland County, any avenue that we can use to deal with drug use and trafficking is something I can support," he said.

Drug court teams in Pennsylvania are usually led by a county judge and include representatives from the district attorney's office, defense counsel, treatment programs, probation office and law enforcement.

Drug court programs require supervision that includes frequent drug testing, structured treatment and recovery services, according to the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania website.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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