No obvious pattern immediately emerges from the 78 drug-overdose deaths reported last year in Westmoreland County, Coroner Kenneth A. Bacha said.
"This kind of thing can happen in an old mobile home back in the woods or in a million-dollar home in a nice neighborhood," he said.
Concerned about the record number of drug-connected fatalities in 2012, county officials have set up a task force to deal with the burgeoning problem.
"This is not just a Westmoreland County issue, but is an epidemic across the nation," Colleen Hughes said. She is executive director of the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission in Monessen.
She and Mr. Bacha met Friday with county Commissioners Charles Anderson, Tyler Courtney and Ted Kopas, county Detective Tony Marcocci and county human services director Dirk Matson. It was the first meeting of the new task force's steering committee. Ms. Hughes and Mr. Matson will serve as co-chairs of the task force, which will add members representing law enforcement, hospitals, pharmacists, the court system, treatment programs and the "recovery community." That last category refers to people who are in or who have completed treatment programs.
The number of accidental drug-related deaths has risen from 22 in 2002 to 78 last year, an increase of 255 percent. With 33 fatalities so far this year, 2013 is on its way to setting another grim record, Mr. Bacha said. The number of drug-related deaths in 2012 was almost double that resulting from traffic accidents, which totaled 41.
The Westmoreland drug-death numbers are outpacing national trends, which also have shown worrisome jumps. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the 11th straight year of increases in the number of drug-overdose deaths. CDC statistics for 2010, the last year for which national statistics 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.
The 2012 report on fatalities prepared by Mr. Bacha's office found that Westmoreland deaths resulted in almost all cases from a combination of drugs. The largest single category of drugs linked to fatal outcomes was anti-depressants, which were present in 33 of the 78 cases. Included in this group are such well-known names as Prozac, Zoloft and Wellbutrin.
Heroin was among the drugs found in 27 of the 78 cases. The two next most-common categories were ethanol and oxycodone or oxymorphone. Each of those substance was present in 20 of the overdose cases.
"The heart of the problem appears to be prescription medicines," Ms. Hughes said.
The next step for the task force will be to complete a root-cause analysis of the data collected on the overdose deaths. "We'll be trying to identify trends and themes," she said. Among the factors they will study will be age, geography, behavioral and mental health histories and involvement with the criminal justice system.
The task force will look at all aspects of the county's drug problem, Mr. Bacha said. That will include prevention, education, detox and recovery programs.
A change in state law also would help deal with prescription drug abuse, he said.
House Bill 317 would establish a "pharmaceutical accountability monitoring system" that would create a central data bank for the prescribing of pain medications that are at risk for being abused.
The measure is designed to prevent "doctor shopping," where patients seek to persuade multiple physicians to prescribe similar drugs.
That bill, introduced by state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, has the support of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association, Mr. Bacha said.
Westmoreland's approach differs from the models used in Washington and Butler counties, where the drug task forces are run from the offices of the district attorneys.
Butler's task force emphasizes law enforcement, its coordinator, county Detective Timothy Fennell, said. "But we do both prevention and education programs," he said. Those efforts include school and church presentations. "I'll take along a recovering heroin addict," he said. "They'll discuss how they were not different from the kids they are talking to."
The county also has a separate drug court that provides a last-chance alternative to prison for offenders convicted of multiple violations of drug laws.
"It's a very intense program and closely supervised," Detective Fennell said. No more than 15 people are enrolled in the program at any time.
The drug task force helped Butler improve its record regarding drug deaths. "A few years ago heroin addiction washed over us like a tidal wave," Detective Fennell said.
He agreed with Ms. Hughes that abuse of prescription drugs is a growing problem.
"Pharmaceutical experts will tell that with many of these drugs 1 plus 1 equals 3," he said. "When people mix drugs, their effects magnify each other."
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 724-772-0184.