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Health officials eye nationwide overdose drop with ‘cautious optimism’

Megan Guza
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David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File

Nationwide drug overdose deaths fell last year for the first time since 1990, a decline mirrored statewide and locally, new data show.

The drop of 5.1% turned the tide on a nearly 30-year increase driven in recent years by heroin and other powerful opioids. The numbers come from preliminary data released Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics, which falls under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The decline amounts to about 3,000 fewer deaths, a number so slight that experts said it’s too early to tell whether the drop is the start of a downward trend or just a blip.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Tim Phillips, director of Westmoreland County’s Drug Overdose Task Force.

Overdose deaths dropped in the county from 193 in 2017 to 122 in 2018, according to numbers from Overdose Free PA, but Phillips said those numbers don’t necessarily signal an end of the epidemic.

“People are still overdosing – they’re just surviving,” he said. “And as the opiate issues have leveled off, particularly the deaths, we’ve seen an increase in methamphetamine and cocaine. Drugs are a symptom of the disease of addiction.”

Sixteen states saw an uptick in reported overdose deaths, with the largest, at 16.7%, occurring in Delaware. Most states that reported increases are in the South and Southwest, though Maryland, New Jersey and Vermont also saw a rise.

Patrick Trainor, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Philadelphia, told The New York Times that it’s difficult to point to any one thing as the cause of the decline. He, too, said he’s cautiously optimistic.

Statewide, overdose deaths dropped by nearly 20%, from 5,600 in 2017 to about 4,500 last year, according to the data.

In Allegheny County, overdose deaths fell more than 40%, from 737 in 2017 to 432 in 2018. County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams last month called the decline “pleasant and largely unexpected.”

It’s still nearly twice as many fatal overdoses as the county saw in 2009: 256. In that year in Westmoreland County, there were 56. Armstrong County counted 23 fatal overdoses last year, down from 39 in 2017. In 2009, the number was four.

Dr. Karen Hacker, outgoing director of the Allegheny County Health Department, credits the decline both nationwide and locally in part to the availability of Naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug.

In April 2015, the state permitted first responders for all emergency services – including police and fire crews – to carry the life-saving drug. Later that year, a standing order made that prescription available to anyone.

According to numbers kept by the state, medics across Pennsylvania administered 22,001 doses of Naloxone between Jan. 1, 2018, and June 8, 2019. Last year, first responders in Allegheny County administered 915 doses; in Westmoreland, 252 doses. Armstrong County first responders administered 48 doses last year.

Hacker said public health officials have unanswered questions about the epidemic and its leveling off: How many people are just starting to use opioids, how many are transitioning to different drugs, and how many people are actually overdosing?

The prevalence of Naloxone, she said, could mean that fewer people are calling emergency services for an overdose.

“I think the term ‘cautiously optimistic’ is the right one,” she said. “I think there’s still a lot to be learned, but you can’t help but feel positive.”

The nationwide and state numbers are based on deaths that have officially been ruled as drug overdoses and open cases that public health officials believe will be ruled overdoses.

Phillips stressed that the decline is a positive sign but doesn’t mean the fight against addiction should slow.

“We can’t afford to put the brakes on now,” he said. “We need to keep doing everything we’ve done and include more.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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