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U.S. Attorney, Pitt working to prevent ODs by posting heroin info online

Brian Bowling
| Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, 12:59 p.m.
U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton speaks during a news briefing on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, discussing recent developments in areas across the Western District of Pennsylvania regarding heroin use.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton speaks during a news briefing on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, discussing recent developments in areas across the Western District of Pennsylvania regarding heroin use.
U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton speaks during a news briefing on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, discussing recent developments in areas across the Western District of Pennsylvania regarding heroin use.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton speaks during a news briefing on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, discussing recent developments in areas across the Western District of Pennsylvania regarding heroin use.
U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton speaks during a news briefing on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, discussing recent developments in areas across the Western District of Pennsylvania regarding heroin use.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton speaks during a news briefing on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, discussing recent developments in areas across the Western District of Pennsylvania regarding heroin use.

More than two dozen nonfatal heroin overdoses and three suspected fatal heroin overdoses in the past week have law enforcement looking at new strategies to combat the epidemic.

One will be posting information online when police identify a batch or “brand” of heroin that is unusually lethal, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said Wednesday during a news conference.

He conceded that the notices could hinder investigations by letting dealers in on what police know about their products. Still, public safety trumps that concern, Hickton said.

When a potent brand of heroin hits the streets, police are in a race with addicts to find the source. Police want to find it and shut it down; addicts want to find it and buy it.

“A batch that is ‘supercharged' is desirable,” Hickton said. “The dealers can get more money for it.”

Posting information about lethal brands makes sense because it raises awareness among first responders, law enforcement and families, said Janice Pringle, director of the University of Pittsburgh Pharmacy School's Program Evaluation and Research Unit.

Although highlighting some brands as lethal could lead to a perception that other brands are safe, a more likely worry is that addicts will seek out the lethal brands, she said.

“That's the horrible part of the addiction,” Pringle said.

Another ongoing effort is to standardize the evidence collected from suspected overdoses to respond more quickly to lethal batches that enter Western Pennsylvania, Hickton said.

Called a “Fusion Center,” the program is already operating and training law enforcement across the region, Hickton said. The FBI is converting its Cranberry office to serve as a permanent home for the program.

An FBI spokesman couldn't be reached for comment.

Nonfatal heroin overdoses spiked in Washington and Cambria counties since the weekend, while Allegheny and Cambria counties saw three deaths that are being investigated as heroin overdoses, Hickton said.

Confirming a death was a heroin overdose takes at least 18 weeks because of how long it takes to get toxicology reports, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has asked Pitt to add the lethal batch information to its website at overdosefreepa.pitt.edu. It provides fatal overdose statistics and information on how addicts and their families can get help.

In the long run, the benefits of adding information about lethal brands outweigh the possible detriments, Pringle said.

Her office and the U.S. Attorney's Office are scheduled to discuss the details of listing the lethal brands on Thursday.

The website provides lists of pharmacies that sell naloxone, an emergency medication sold under the brand name Narcan that reverses overdoses within minutes.

“The majority of these overdose victims (in the past week) have been saved with the use of Narcan,” Hickton said.

The heroin recovered in Washington County tested positive for fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that dealers use to increase heroin's potency.

Authorities are still waiting for test results on the heroin recovered in the Cambria County cases, he said.

Washington County has seen at least a dozen nonfatal overdoses since the weekend. The overdoses are tied to stamp bags that are either marked with a picture of a black boot or labeled “Piece of Mind.”

Cambria County has seen 15 nonfatal overdoses since Monday, with eight of them tied to bags marked “BULLETPROOF” in red with a black and red skull.

The three deaths in Allegheny and Cambria counties are tied to stamp bags labeled “Black Ops.”

Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha said his office is investigating a suspected fatal heroin overdose Wednesday at a home in Jeannette.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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