Overdose deaths increase dramatically in Washington County

February 8, 2014
A drug addict prepares a needle to inject himself with heroin in this file photo. Drug overdose deaths were up in 2013 in Washington County and heroin was the leading cause. - Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

When Washington County Coroner Tim Warco compiled his year-end report his first year in office in 1992, he recorded two deaths under the column for drug overdoses. It would never be that low again.

Last year, there were 58 drug overdose deaths in the county, up dramatically from 36 in 2012. And that figure does not include five people who took their own lives through lethal drug overdoses.

As the number of deaths increase, so do the number of people seeking treatment for drug addictions. For the first time in 2012, and again in 2013, people seeking treatment for heroin addiction exceeded the number of those asking for help in battling an alcohol addiction, said Cheryl Andrews, executive director of the Washington County Drug and Alcohol Commission.

The trend is not the same in Greene County, where Coroner Greg Rohanna said he saw no significant increase in drug overdose deaths in 2013 compared to 2012.

With the recent spike in overdose deaths linked to batches of heroin laced with fentanyl in Pittsburgh and the death of Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Warco said the heroin problem is again at the forefront.

“It has evolved into an epidemic,” Warco said. “I think the public awareness has been heightened with the demise of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It seems when celebrities die, people listen and react.”

Heroin deaths quintupled from 2012, when there were five, to 27 last year. Warco has also seen 10 deaths caused by oxycodone overdoses, four from fentanyl overdoses and two from morphine. There also were three alcohol-related deaths that are included in the drug overdose total.

Washington County’s trend mirrors what is happening across the United States, as heroin use is increasing among young people and in more suburban areas.

In 2013, 36 men died from overdoses, up from 23 in 2012, while 22 women died, up three from the previous year. There also was a marked increase in deaths of those ages 20 to 29. In 2013, 25 people in that age group died, or more than eight times the number in 2012.

Six people died from overdosing on a combination of two drugs while six died after ingesting a combination of four different drugs at once.

Of the five suicides committed through drug overdoses, one of each was from fentanyl, methadone, heroin, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Warco determined these deaths were suicides based on notes left behind by the deceased or other indicators.

In the case of prescription drug overdoses, Warco was asked to look at who is dispensing the prescriptions and the patient’s name.

Warco believes education is the key to stemming the number of drug overdoses. Last year, he along with Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone and other county agencies put on “drug summits” to discuss prescription drug abuse. Heroin addicts often start with prescription painkillers.

The coroner said he has been disappointed because several districts scheduled to host summits this school year canceled.

Warco believes that educating the public and several different programs regarding highway safety has reduced the number of fatal vehicle crashes. In 2013, Warco pronounced 14 people dead in traffic crashes compared to 23 the year before. He thinks the same can be done by educating the public about the dangers of drugs.

“There were years my predecessor, Farrell Jackson, would respond to almost 60 highway fatalities,” Warco said. “But with education about seat belt awareness and other safety aspects, as well as through the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, those numbers have decreased. I’d like to see the same thing happen through these summits.”

Warco said his office wants to start tracking the municipalities where overdoses have occurred and the type of drug involved.

Andrews also called the drug problem an epidemic.

“Absolutely every year our numbers increase in people seeking treatment for addiction,” Andrews said. “And for the first time in 2012, the people coming in for treatment addicted to heroin along with other opiates is superseding alcohol as the drug of choice.”

“We often see a spike in people seeking treatment following an overdose death, especially if it is personal,” she added. “There is a huge recovering community network. When they lose one of their own, it sparks attention.”

Andrews said the recovering addict needs long-term treatment.

“But the problem is they get antsy and leave the program,” she said. “They are feeling better and think they can do it on their own but find themselves relapsing. But they think they can handle what they were doing before they sought treatment and pick up where they left off. And that has ramifications.”

Of the 1,662 people screened last year by the commission, 550 were seeking treatment for heroin addicition and 173 for addiction to prescription drugs. Heroin addicts, who usually started out using painkillers, often again use pills in between the heroin use, Andrews said.

Rohanna has seen an increase in drug deaths over the last 10 years in Greene County.

“I will agree there has been an increase in the last 10 years,” Rohanna said. “But the deaths are not all attributed to heroin.”

Rohanna could not give specific numbers of drug-related deaths from 2013 because he does not segregate types of deaths in his records. “This county does not have the software for this and I don’t have a secretary,” he said.

Rohanna said with respect to drug deaths, prescription medication overdoses combined with alcohol are probably just as prevalent as deaths from heroin overdoses.

“The numbers over the last two years have been consistent,” Rohanna said. “I can say this – the number of deaths related to drug overdoses the last two years has not skyrocketed.”

Greene County Bureau Chief Jon Stevens contributed to this report.

To read the full 2013 Washington County Coroner’s Report, visit http://www.co.washington.pa.us/DocumentCenter/View/846.

Kathie O. Warco has covered the police beat and transportation for the Observer-Reporter for more than 25 years. She graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in journalism.

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