The number of overdose deaths in Washington County increased by about 50 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year, with many resulting not just from use of heroin but also fentanyl, either alone or in combination with other drugs.
In his 2016 report released earlier this week, Washington County Coroner Tim Warco noted there were 109 deaths caused by overdoses compared to 73 in 2015. Of the deaths last year, seven victims had only heroin in their system while 20 were found only with fentanyl. Fifteen of those deaths had a combination of heroin and fentanyl. Heroin and fentanyl also were found in combination with other drugs such as acetylfentanyl, alcohol, cocaine, hydrocodone and morphine.
“In 2016, we started seeing more commingling of other drugs with heroin, including mixing it with synthetic fentanyl,” Warco said. “And fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine.
“Some cases where we thought it was a heroin overdose, comes back with no heroin in the system,” he added. “Some of the people using drugs have no idea what they are buying. They go from prescription medications that are made in a controlled environment of a pharmaceutical company to street drugs on the black market where there is no quality control.”
Warco said he performs an autopsy in all suspected overdose cases, not relying solely on toxicology tests.
“If there is going to be a prosecution in the death, it is important we can show that the victim died of a drug overdose and not some other cause,” he said.
Warco was due to testify Wednesday in a preliminary hearing for a Washington man charged in the overdose death of a Clearfield County woman last August. The hearing for Robert William Welsh III, 35, who is charged with drug delivery resulting in death and possession with intent to deliver heroin, was continued until next month. Welsh is accused of providing 28-year-old Sarah Adessa Wilson with heroin that contained fentanyl. She died of an overdose in a room at a Canton Township motel.
“People have to remember that the death of one person exponentially affects 10 to 15 family members. Sarah is gone, but she left behind family,” Warco said. “Drug addiction affects all levels of society, race and creed. We often lose sight of how many lives are being affected by addiction.
“Society wants to hide that an individual has an addiction instead of making it known,” the coroner added. “It looks at addiction as an affliction that happens to unfortunate people without recognizing it can happen to someone from all walks of life.”
Warco does not believe putting addicts in jail is the answer to an ever-increasing drug problem.
“They need to be placed in a serious, government-funded rehabilitation program,” he said.
Warco said he was asked by several agencies to provide information on drug deaths by zip code. The Washington zip code had the most with 31 deaths, followed by 27 in Monongahela and 12 in Canonsburg. Warco noted that these areas had higher numbers because there are hospitals in each of those communities.
Washington police, for example, investigated about a dozen overdose deaths. Most departments only tracked the number of overdose calls they answered, not the number of people who died as a result. Nine overdose deaths were reported in Charleroi, which does not have a hospital. Charleroi Regional police Chief Eric Porter said his department investigated four overdose deaths.
Seventy-four males and 35 females died from overdoses, with the youngest 14 and the oldest 83.
Overall, Warco saw a decline in the total number of cases reported to his office, responding to 2,137 incidents, or 107 fewer than in 2015, with August being the busiest month. The number of homicides in the county doubled from four in 2015 to eight last year. Five fewer people were killed in vehicle crashes in 2016.