Washington County drug overdose deaths could reach 100 this year

December 21, 2016

It’s a grim statistic that no one wants to think about any time of the year, let alone just before the holidays, but the number of drug-overdose deaths in Washington County could reach or top 100 this year for the first time since the current coroner began keeping records.

The report prepared by the office of Coroner Tim Warco lists 69 drug overdose deaths from January through September. In all of 2015, there were 73. In 1992, the year that Warco took office, there were two.

“The numbers would be a lot worse if we didn’t have Narcan out there,” said Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, a 20-year, card-carrying paramedic who personally dealt with victims of the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1990s. “This is a complex public health and public safety issue.”

Cocaine is a stimulant. Widespread use of opiates, painkillers that also depress the respiratory system, became a problem as the use of them as prescription drugs exploded in the 1990s, Vittone said in an interview Wednesday.

Because of the time it takes to get results from toxicological tests – about eight weeks – the total number of drug-overdose deaths in the county is not likely to become available until late February or early March.

Not all drug overdose deaths are accidental. There is some overlap with drug-overdose deaths and suicide by drug overdose. And someone who drinks herself or himself to death also is listed among the overdoses; there were two deaths solely attributed to alcohol in the county so far this year.

Forty-five males and 24 females have died this year in Washington County from drug overdoses, and the age range of the victims is categorized from decades 10 to 19 through octogenarians, with no drug overdose deaths reported among septuagenarians. The largest number of deaths, 21, has occurred in the 30 to 39 age range.

Single-drug overdoses accounted for 23 deaths. Others occurred as some combination of alcohol, cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, morphine and oxycodone.

Greene County reported nine drug overdose deaths in 2014 and 14 last year, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration report released in July. In both Washington and Greene counties, the drugs most commonly found in the victims’ bodies were heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Most of the fentanyl, which Vittone described as a “fentanyl analog” because it has molecular differences from the pharmaceutical-grade product, is produced in laboratories in China.

“Some users say they can tell the difference because it’s grayish or brownish,” Vittone said. From China to dealers in the Philadelphia-New Jersey and Columbus-Cleveland, Ohio, areas, Washington lies at the center of a highway nexus that also includes Interstate 79 to West Virginia, which Vittone called “the pill capital of the world. If you look at a map, Washington is the bull’s eye.”

Sgt. Steven Dowlin, commander of the state police barracks near Waynesburg, said Tuesday he’s directed his troopers to work with their counterparts in Washington County to offer any assistance or share any information, if possible.

“We’re on the same page with them,” Dowlin said of the cooperation. “Troop B, as a whole, is steadfast in trying to curb the epidemic.”

In the wake of the release of a 34-page study this fall by the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics called “A Continuum of Care Approach: Western Pennsylvania’s Response to the Opioid Epidemic,” Vittone has formed a Washington County Opioid Task Force.

“Deaths are just part of the problem,” Vittone said. “Obviously, my end of the world is prosecution and rehabilitation of the people who are addicted.”

On Wednesday morning, he was working on a grant application in conjunction with the Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission Inc. that he said “looks at a different way of treating inmates. We’ve got to change how we think about things. I’ve got a jail full of addicts.”

The district attorney, who is a member of the Washington County Prison Board, said one component of the grant, funding for which should be decided in March, is the use of an injection that blocks the effects of opiates for 30 days. Called Vivitrol, the extended-release, non-addictive medication would be used after detoxification and just before an inmate is released from jail. Statistics show that a number of addicts have died just after their release from incarceration, probably because at that time, they have a lowered tolerance.

Spinoffs of the drug epidemic include more than one generation. Juvenile delinquency and an increasing number of cases involving dependent children are being seen by local courts.

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, Washington County Children and Youth Services had 3,372 cases, an increase of 212, or slightly more than 6.7 percent, from the previous fiscal year, and most of the dependent children of addicts are infants through age 8.

At Washington Hospital, the medical records department was able to compile some data from patients’ charts in which physicians documented that infants were affected by maternal drug abuse. The hospital averages between 900 to 1,000 deliveries per year, and between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2015, 49 infants were affected. Between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30 of this year, the number had increased to 57.

Vittone also pointed to hepatitis and AIDS transmitted by shared hypodermic needles and said, “There are a whole plethora of things that are infecting society. That just shows the tendrils of this thing.”

Regional Editor Mike Jones contributed to this report.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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