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3 die in rash of 17 overdoses reported throughout Washington County

Jason Cato
| Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, 11:57 p.m.

Washington County reeled Monday amid another wave of overdose deaths likely tied to heroin as the White House announced an effort to combat the persistent drug epidemic in Pennsylvania and other hard-hit states.

First responders fielded 17 calls for drug overdoses Sunday night in Washington, Amwell, Canonsburg, Charleroi, Donora and Houston, authorities said. Three people died, while police armed with Narcan, an overdose-reversing antidote, said they saved three others.

Authorities did not identify those who died or where the deaths occurred. Toxicology reports are pending to verify what caused the fatalities.

“It is suspected that it is due to heroin,” said Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, noting that 211 people have died of drug overdoses in the county since 2011. “We're in an epidemic. It may get worse before it gets better. But it's not just us.”

In Westmoreland County, Monessen police reported they handled three suspected heroin overdoses this weekend, with one man remaining hospitalized on life support Monday.

Mon Valley Hospital in Monongahela, which serves Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, said it treated seven people for overdoses from Saturday through Monday afternoon. None died.

“This is a public health issue. Law enforcement can't solve this by itself,” Vittone said. “There is a demand problem that must be addressed.”

The White House Drug Policy Office on Monday pledged $2.5 million for a new Heroin Response Strategy that will coordinate public health-public safety partnerships in designated counties in Pennsylvania and 14 other states, including West Virginia. Details were not available.

“The spread of heroin is a public health and law enforcement challenge the likes of which we have not seen in quite some time,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton. “It's critical to ensure our law enforcement has the resources and our public health professionals have the tools to treat addiction and stop the spread of illegal drugs.”

Under the strategy, five regions will have a public health coordinator tracking heroin overdoses and issuing necessary warnings while a public safety coordinator monitors intelligence about heroin trafficking. Money will be available to train police and medical personnel inexperienced in dealing with heroin.

“The new Heroin Response Strategy demonstrates a strong commitment to address the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic as both a public health and a public safety issue,” said Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy.

In addition to drug enforcement and arrests, the federal approach will emphasize and expand community-based efforts to prevent addiction, increase treatment access, reduce overdose deaths and support addicts in recovery, Botticelli said.

Confronting the heroin problem with a multi-faceted approach is imperative, said Holly Martin, chief operating officer and staff psychologist at Washington, Pa.-based Greenbriar Treatment Center.

“We can't just focus on arresting people,” she said. “We've got to get the treatment there. We've got to get the education there.”

While 17 people overdosing in one day is a lot, Martin said it isn't that atypical in the county.

“There are overdoses and deaths every weekend, all the time,” she said.

Western Pennsylvania has weathered several incidents in which heroin, often laced with other powerful painkillers, caused a wave of fatal and near-fatal overdoses in a short period.

In April, two people in the Pittsburgh area died in heroin-related incidents while 10 were saved when paramedics administered Narcan, or the generic naloxone, a drug that reverses the deadly effects of opioids such as heroin, oxycodone and other prescription pain medications.

Stamp bags, or individual doses, of heroin were found at several scenes with specific branding marks dealers use to distinguish their product from others on the streets.

Washington County authorities investigated at least two suspected overdose deaths at that time after recovering similarly marked stamp bags.

In January 2014, 22 people died in six days around Western Pennsylvania from a lethal batch of heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller often used to treat cancer patients.

A similar batch of fentanyl-laced heroin hit Pittsburgh and the region in the summer of 2006. Stamp bags branded with “Get High or Die Trying” and other labels accounted for more than 50 people overdosing and at least eight deaths.

The batch of heroin that made its way around Washington County during the weekend and likely is still available has a stamp brand, Martin said.

She declined to identify the street brand, fearing that it would cause more addicts to seek it out for its potency.

“This wasn't from a bad batch,” Martin said. “All heroin has the potential to do this.”

Vittone agreed.

“That's the problem. You don't know what you're getting,” Vittone said. “You don't know what is in that envelope. There is no bad batch because there is no good batch of heroin.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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