There appears to be a slight increase in the number of people dying from drug overdoses in Westmoreland County in 2020 after two consecutive years of decline.
Statistics from the county coroner show 102 people died of drug overdoses last year and 19 more cases are suspected.
This would lead to a 5% increase over the 2019 figures if these 19 suspected cases were confirmed by toxicology.
After reaching a record 193 drug overdose deaths in 2017, the county recorded 122 deaths in 2018 and 115 in 2019.
“We had a nice decline for a few years,” said Coroner Ken Bacha.
The potent opioid fentanyl remains the main killer, contributing to 91 of 102 confirmed deaths, according to coroner’s statistics.
People recovering from a drug addiction problem have found themselves in dire straits for much of 2020, as support organizations and rehabilitation and treatment centers have had to adjust their offerings to meet state restrictions aimed at to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In-person meetings and other events that can act as a lifeline have been downsized or moved online, affecting the stability or routine that someone may depend on.
“Zooming is good, but in the 12-step world people like to touch each other, hug each other,” said Colleen Hughes, director of the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission, referring to the app. video conferencing. “Those recovering have really suffered.”
Local prevention organizations also had to find creative ways to get their message across.
The Westmoreland County Overdose Commission and Task Force both relied on driving events to distribute naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdose.
“We had to recreate ourselves,” said Tim Phillips, director of the task force.
The organization distributed 400 to 500 doses of naloxone by partnering with the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank for drive-thru distributions, Phillips said.
“I hope our harm reduction efforts have helped,” he said.
The commission has organized similar driving events and has started sending naloxone to anyone who wants a dose in Westmoreland County, Hughes said. She and Phillips believed drug overdose deaths would have been much higher in the county for 2020 given the circumstances of the year.
In other parts of the country, they were.
Nationwide, the number of deaths appeared to increase in 2020 after stabilizing slightly over the previous two years, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The organization issued an alert in December saying increased prevention efforts were needed after deaths appeared to accelerate during the pandemic.
It was not clear how Allegheny’s drug overdose deaths in 2020 would compare to 2019, when 564 people died and 492 deaths in 2018, according to medical examiner statistics. There were 492 drug overdose deaths reported in Allegheny in 2020, but it was not clear when this information was last updated on OverdoseFreePa.com.
Fentanyl was the main contributor to drug overdose deaths in Westmoreland last year, followed by heroin and prescription opioids. Hughes and Phillips said fentanyl – which has been in number one since 2016 – appears to be mixed with other drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine. Cocaine was present in 23 deaths and methamphetamine in 16 of the confirmed cases, according to coroner’s statistics.
Monessen was hit hard by overdose deaths in 2020. There have been 10 confirmed deaths there, making it the second highest municipality in the county behind Greensburg, where Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital is located. In 2019, one person died of an overdose in Monessen.
Hughes said the Monessen-based commission plans to focus on the city by putting up garden signs at the death sites to remind residents that naloxone is available. Members of the Mon Valley Opioid Coalition were planning to discuss ways to focus on the city that borders Washington County.
Of the 2020 deaths confirmed so far, Hempfield and North Huntingdon each had seven and New Kensington and Sewickley each had five. Greensburg had the most with 12.
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