Washington officials create group to combat overdoses

February 13, 2014
Washington County Coroner Tim Warco gestures while speaking Thursday at a news conference about the area’s drug overdose epidemic. Next to Warco is Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone. At rear, from left, are Washington County Sheriff Sam Romano, Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Douglas Bartoe, South Strabane Township police Chief Donald Zofchak (obscured by Warco), Canonsburg police Chief R.T. Bell and Chartiers Township police Chief James Horvath. - Barbara Miller / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Before he was elected to public office, Washington County Coroner Tim Warco worked for an ambulance service when the emergency medical services field was in its early stages. District Attorney Eugene Vittone was a paramedic in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Gene and I are old medics,” Warco said Thursday. “Back when we were running ambulances, we never heard of a drug overdose.”

Times have changed. Warco’s year-end report for 2013 initially set the overdose total at 58 deaths, but the coroner said that number increased to at least 60 after toxicology reports were returned on pending cases. During Warco’s first year in office in 1992, he investigated just two overdose deaths.

Vittone and Warco announced Thursday that a working group will be created to develop an education action plan to combat issues associated with heroin and prescription drug abuse, including drug summits hosted by schools with programs aimed at different age groups.

“Every municipality in Washington County is consistently dealing with drug overdoses,” Warco said. “And it is only going to get worse.”

“It is a societal problem that touches each and every one of us,” he added. “No one is immune and the ramifications on the family are devastating.”

Too often, a person with someone who overdosed will not call 911, Vittone said.

“If someone needs help because they are overdosing, call for help,” Vittone urged. “We can work through the legal consequences later.”

State police Lt. Douglas Bartoe said the crime and vice units are investigating a death in Houston that may be linked to the fentanyl-laced heroin branded “Thera Flu,” which killed about two dozen people in Allegheny County. Warco said he has not seen any cases related to that drug and generally does not include fentanyl in a drug screen during autopsies.

“But if I get to the scene and find someone with a needle in the arm, the heroin has probably been laced with fentanyl,” Warco said.

Friends and family sometimes try to hide the signs of drug use after a death.

“They tell me they don’t know what happened, that their son only smoked a little weed,” Warco said.

Bartoe said troopers are also responding to more overdoses that do not end in death.

“We get a couple of overdoses reported a week,” Bartoe said. “Most are revived by paramedics with a dose of Narcan.”

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” he added. “We are also more people driving under the influence of drugs like methadone. We’ve added extra drug recognition experts to try and detect these drivers.”

Bartoe said many people start their addiction with prescription drugs and when those are no longer available, move to heroin, which is cheaper.

Washington police Chief Chris Luppino said the street price for painkillers is about $1 a milligram while stamp bags of heroin costs $10 to $20.

“But the dealers are making their money selling prescription drugs,” Luppino said. “They are making 500 percent profit.”

Luppino said city overdose calls also are becoming more routine.

“Our numbers are most definitely increasing,” Luppino said. “During one weekend last month, we had five calls to overdoses.”

Washington fire Chief Linn Brookman told City Council last week that his department has seen an uptick in drug-related incidents, noting half of 22 medical calls in January were for overdoses.

“It hasn’t been very pleasant the past month,” Brookman said. “Whatever is hitting the other cities, it’s here now.”

Vittone said drug abuse is the cause of many crimes from murder to thefts. Bartoe agreed.

“The addicts are going to hotel parking lots and stealing wire from gas drilling trucks,” Bartoe said. “Then, they are selling the wire at a scrap yard so they have money for a quick fix.”

Vittone is encouraging the state Legislature to pass a prescription monitoring bill.

“We want those who provide prescriptions to be able to monitor who is getting what and how often,” he said.

Both Warco and Vittone said education is a key, as is getting unused and unneeded prescription drugs off streets.

Drop boxes for unwanted prescription drugs are located at police departments throughout the county, including Beallsville, California, Canonsburg, Charleroi, McDonald and its substation in Burgettstown, Monongahela, West Brownsville, and Carroll, Cecil, Donegal, East Bethlehem, North Franklin, North Strabane, Peters, Smith and South Strabane townships. Boxes are also available at California University of Pennsylvania and Washington & Jefferson College security offices and the Southwest Regional police department.

Peters Township police Chief Harry Fruecht said his department has had a collection box for several years.

“Our numbers are up,” Fruecht said. “It is astounding what people bring in.”

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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