Overdose deaths hit record in Westmoreland County
A record set in Westmoreland County is one Coroner Ken Bacha has dreaded for months: Drug overdose deaths reached an all-time high in 2012.
His deputies investigated 71 overdose deaths last year, surpassing the record of 64 in 2011, according to year-end statistics.
The startling news, Bacha said, is that 14 more suspected overdose cases may be added to the total. Those cases are awaiting toxicology test results.
Bacha noted that in 2002, his office investigated 22 overdoses.
“And it doesn't seem to be slowing down at all,” Bacha said.
In the first week of 2013, the coroner's office was called to investigate seven suspected overdose cases. Toxicology tests are pending.
“A lot of them are heroin overdoses. There were 22 confirmed (heroin) deaths last year, compared to 19 in 2011. But the majority of the overdoses we've investigated locally are from various pain medications,” Bacha said.
That includes prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and Vicodin, which have taken over as the county's leading killer.
Deputy Coroner Josh Zappone, who tabulates the annual statistics for the office, noted that the overdose deaths encompassed a large age span.
“They were all over. The youngest case was just 20 years old, from heroin, and the oldest ... was a 72-year-old victim of prescription pain medication,” Zappone said.
Bacha and Zappone said the county's drug problem is a major contributing factor in many other cases the coroner's office investigates, including suicides and homicides.
“What we've seen a lot of is people get prescribed a pain medication, then become addicted to them. They get doctors to write them multiple scripts, and it gets to the point it becomes so expensive that they turn to heroin for the high because it's so much cheaper,” Bacha said.
“We've heard of a case where one man was bartering his pain medication, oxycodone, which sells for $1 a milligram (for a 15- or 30-milligram pill). It's only $10 or $15 on the street for a stamp bag of heroin,” Bacha said.
The coroner's numbers don't surprise veteran Greensburg police Detective Jerry Vernail, who has worked undercover for 10 years.
Vernail says addictive medications “have always been out there.”
“(Their use) goes sort of in waves ... I guess by what's available on the market,” he said. “But mixing them is what really gets someone in trouble. Mixing oxycodone with Xanax, for instance, is very dangerous.”
Vernail said he is working on a drug possession case involving an Allegheny County woman who has driven to Westmoreland to buy painkillers — “probably because of price and availability” — so often that she has been treated for overdoses three times in the emergency room at Excela Health Westmoreland hospital in Greensburg and once at Excela Health Frick Hospital in Mt. Pleasant.
The 2012 statistics alarmed Donna A. Kean, executive director of the St. Vincent College Prevention Project, which conducts community- and school-based drug and alcohol prevention programs throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania.
“We have definitely seen an increase in the use of prescription drugs and medications, particularly by younger and younger people. This past fall, the county drug and alcohol commission released a needs assessment for the age group of 15 to 21 years old, and alcohol use was still No. 1, with marijuana second, but the third choice is prescription drugs and painkillers,” she said.
“Prescriptions were never in the top three choices in prior surveys. Everyone looks at their own community trend, and I can say they have grave concerns over where it will end,” Kean said.
Few communities are untouched, she said.
“Every time there's an overdose story in a particular community … it impacts them. Many people feel drugs are taking their communities from them,” she said.
Bacha noted that the coroner's office participates in drug awareness programs in schools and community settings in an effort to stem the epidemic.
Earlier this month, coroner's officials attended a meeting of Sage's Army, a nonprofit established by the family of Sage Capozzi of Irwin, who died of an overdose in March.
In comparison, Washington County had 33 confirmed overdose deaths in 2012, a drop from 46 in 2011, according to Coroner S. Tim Warco.
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office's year-end figures are not tabulated until April. The office reported 261 overdose deaths in 2011. The county health department issued a report last year that accidental overdoses in the past decade doubled overall and tripled for people younger than 24.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.