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Westmoreland County drug overdose deaths on pace to surpass 2012 record by 40%

| Friday, June 28, 2013, 7:29 a.m.
The locations of drug overdose deaths from 2011 through mid-June shows a heavy concentration of cases along the Route 30 corridor.
The locations of drug overdose deaths from 2011 through mid-June shows a heavy concentration of cases along the Route 30 corridor.

The number of drug overdose deaths in Westmoreland County this year is on pace to surpass the 2012 record of 78 deaths by 40 percent, said Coroner Ken Bacha.

Bacha said the county could end 2013 with 110 overdose deaths.

The coroner said his investigators have confirmed 46 fatal overdoses so far this year and that seven pending cases likely will be added to that number once toxicology tests are complete.

“I don't know what to say anymore,” Bacha said. “We're looking for a common denominator, and we're not finding it.”

The heaviest concentration of drug overdose deaths in the past two years was along the Route 30 corridor, according to Dirk Matson, the county's human services director.

In 2012, the municipalities included Derry, New Alexandria, Hempfield, Greensburg, New Stanton and Jeannette. The year before, concentrations were centered on Unity, Latrobe and Ligonier township and borough.

The youngest to die were a 19-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man, who attended a party where heroin was available. Both were found dead the next morning in their homes.

A third of the victims died of heroin overdoses, while the others died from an acute combination of drugs, Bacha said.

Drug overdose deaths in the county have increased steadily in the past decade, statistics show.

In 2002, the coroner's office recorded 22 drug-related deaths; 12 involved heroin. In 2012, the number hit 78, and 27 involved heroin.

A task force created to tackle the drug problem met this week and is analyzing the cases, looking for patterns.

“We want to learn what to go after and why,” said Bacha, a member of the task force.

Matson said the group is reviewing 100 deaths between Jan. 1, 2012, and Feb. 28, 2013, looking at victims' mental and physical health historie, and any prior drug treatment.

“We want to identify gaps where the problems are,” Matson said. “We want to see if there are any big concentrations of deaths in different areas.

“The truth is, the problem is spread throughout the county. This epidemic knows no cultural, geographic or cultural boundaries,” he said.

The study has dispelled an age myth, Matson said. A majority of the fatal overdoses in the past two years involved older rather than young people. He said 63 percent of overdoses in 2011 and 60 percent in 2012 involved people age 41 or older.

“Most overdoses involve older people and prescription drugs,” Matson noted.

The Centers for Disease Control reported Pennsylvania is the 11th worst state for overdoses related to prescription painkillers.

Bacha said two recent heroin deaths involved men ages 69 and 72. He said the men had been treated for legitimate medical ailments and were prescribed pain pills. After their doctors stopped writing prescriptions, they began buying street drugs. Rather than pay $1 a milligram for oxycodone, or $15 for a 15-milligram dose, the men turned to heroin, which is cheaper, the coroner said.

Detective Tony Marcocci, who works for the District Attorney's Office, has reported that heroin is readily available, potent and cheap. In Murrysville, a stamp bag of heroin — containing 1100 to 3100 gram — costs $8 and is 80 percent to 90 percent pure, he said.

Bacha said his office is creating a database with the different names of stamps that drug dealers use to market their product.

Dealers typically package heroin in small, glassine bags and “stamp” a name, phrase or cartoon character on the package. Bacha said some of the bags currently being sold in Westmoreland County are stamped “Bin Laden,” “Justin Bieber,” “Avatar” and “Get High or Die Trying.”

The state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs on Thursday issued a warning about deaths caused by yet another painkiller, acetyl fentanyl, a derivative of fentanyl, which has caused 50 deaths in the state.

One was in Westmoreland County; others were confirmed in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Cambria and Washington counties.

Fentanyl typically is used to relieve severe pain or as a last resort for patients dying of cancer.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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