Allegheny County drug overdose deaths surge to 613 in 2016, breaking record
April 6, 2017 4:09 PM
Overdoses in Allegheny County, led mostly by the proliferation of opioid addiction, resulted in 610 deaths, a county record.
Fatal overdoses in Allegheny County
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When surging drug overdose deaths finally spurred state legislation last year, many policymakers warned that there would be no immediate reversal of the trend.
That has proved true, at least in Allegheny County and likely statewide. On Thursday the county Medical Examiner revealed that 613 people died from drugs last year, a jump of 44 percent over the prior year, largely due to fentanyl and heroin.
Created with Highstock 5.0.10Overdose deathsby gender2016 Allegheny CountyMaleFemale
Created with Highstock 5.0.10Overdose deathsby race2016 Allegheny CountyWhiteBlackOther
“I would say my heart aches,” said county Health Department Director Karen Hacker. “We’ve been deeply involved in this issue. … It just feels like you get this new drug on the market, and you’re just chasing it.
“We’re just not able to get ahead of it.”
The overdose numbers “don’t surprise me,” said Gov. Tom Wolf, on Thursday afternoon. “They sadden me, as I think they should sadden every Pennsylvanian.”
Statewide overdose numbers may not be final until June. Mr. Wolf believes they, too, will reflect similarly rising drug deaths.
The 2015 fatal overdose total of 424 in Allegheny County — and 3,383 statewide — shocked many. Last year’s much higher county total is nearly three times the 2010 overdose toll. That was before prescription painkillers broadened the market for heroin, and dealers began spiking their drugs with fentanyl.
Most heroin sold on the streets now contains some fentanyl, Dr. Hacker said. Some stamp bags now contain mostly fentanyl, which can be 100 times stronger than heroin.
“Fentanyl is like a whole new ballgame,” Dr. Hacker said. “People are dying the first time they try it.”
Fentanyl was present in more than 60 percent of last year’s overdose victims in Allegheny County, heroin in more than 50 percent, and oxycodone in 10 percent, based on preliminary numbers posted on the website http://www.overdosefreepa.org/, run by the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. (Many of the bodies tested positive for multiple drugs.)
“In 2016, for the first time, fentanyl occurs more frequently than heroin in the multidrug mixtures typically seen in these overdoses,” said Medical Examiner Karl Williams, in a press release. He said the change “follows a pattern seen throughout the larger Appalachian and Midwest regions.”
More than two-thirds of last year’s overdose victims in the county were male, and six out of every seven were white. The biggest age group was 25 to 34, comprising almost one-third of the deceased.
Within Allegheny County, the ZIP codes with the highest numbers of overdoses were 15210 (Mt. Oliver, Knoxville, parts of Carrick and environs) with 33 deaths, 15212 (parts of the North Side) with 28 deaths and 15136 (McKees Rocks, Stowe, Kennedy, part of Robinson) with 25.
The Health Department has been diving into some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, trying to educate people on the help that’s available.
“We are really committed to doing whatever we can, and I believe we have many partners in our community who are equally committed,” said Dr. Hacker, whose department has posted information at www.achd.net/overdoseprevention.
There was little reason for optimism in the data, but it is possible that efforts launched last year will help this year.
In late October, the General Assembly passed, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed, bills that restricted painkiller prescribing in emergency departments and to youths; that compelled doctors to check patients’ prescribing histories before recommending narcotics; and that demanded more opioid education for current and future medical practitioners.
“The legislation that we passed last year, this will be the first full calendar year of that,” Gov. Wolf said. “This is the first year that we have the 45 Centers of Excellence treatment centers. ... This will be the first year where we’re proposing -- at least I’m proposing -- to put $10 million into making sure that all first responders have [naloxone],” the overdose reversal drug.
“We recognize that it’s a major problem,” said state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, who spearheaded some of that legislation. “There is no politician out there running for any office or holding any office that doesn’t talk about the drug problem.”
He is proposing new hurdles for doctors before prescribing opioids, and new standards for addiction recovery houses.
Some legislators have objected to Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to merge the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs into an expanded Department of Health and Human Services.
“In my opinion, the drug problem is so immense,” said Sen. Yaw, “I think that we need to spend the time and have the focus [of one agency be] on just that problem.”
Gov. Wolf countered that his merger proposal is meant to “create the opportunity for professionals to do a better job, because they’re working together.”
There were 5,698 emergency room visits for overdoses last year, according to the Allegheny County Health Department, up from 3,756 in 2014. That’s a 50 percent increase which could mean more drug use, greater emphasis on getting people to emergency rooms — or both.
The county reported that 2,320 doses of naloxone were administered by Pittsburgh medics last year, and many of the people who were saved were brought to emergency rooms. Doctors there are being trained to try to urge patients to get into treatment.
“A lot of times an overdose really triggers that awareness on the part of the substance use disorder sufferer that, hey, I’ve reached rock bottom here, I need to get some help,” Gov. Wolf said.
He acknowledged calls for more stringent efforts to compel people who survive overdoses into treatment, perhaps through a civil commitment process. He said he’s trying to figure out the balance between “the right of someone to live the life they want to versus the right of society to ensure that someone gets the treatment they need.”
It’s as yet unclear whether policymakers’ efforts are slowing a trend that began with increased narcotics prescribing, which created a market for heroin and then synthetic fentanyl, but there’s no doubt that the issue is getting attention, from the capital to local neighborhoods.
On Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., held a roundtable discussion with experts and constituents affected by the opioid epidemic.
On Thursday Post Acute Recovery, LLC, announced that it is planning a new addiction treatment center, called Strive, in Greensburg.
State Rep. Dan Deasy, D-Westwood, will hold a Heroin & Opiate Community Awareness Town Hall on Monday at 6 p.m., at the Mt. Washington Healthy Active Living Center.
Meanwhile, the epidemic continues to ripple through families.
On Monday alone, the Post-Gazette’s obituary pages included two 29-year-old men who lost battles with addiction, according to their families. Dylan Alexander Forsythe, a native of Bradford whose family moved to Pittsburgh, left behind a fiance of three years. Gregory James Lynam, of Altoona, left behind a son.
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