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University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania coroners coordinate data on drug overdoses

Renatta Signorini
| Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

A more complete picture of statewide overdose death statistics is slowly coming together on a website operated by University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy researchers.

In the past year, 17 coroners and medical examiners have begun sharing their data on Overdose Free PA .

“It's an extraordinary program unlike anything else in the U.S.,” said Allegheny County's medical examiner, Dr. Karl Williams, who, along with Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha, provided death data last year to get the program started. “There's nothing like it for information about what is going on for overdoses in each of the individual counties.”

Researchers hope to house overdose death data from all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties on Overdose Free PA to aid in community prevention and enforcement efforts. So far, the 19 participating coroners and medical examiners have provided data for at least 2016, while some counties have several years' worth of information and regularly update statistics as toxicology reports are completed.

Program director Lynn Mirigian wants Overdose Free PA, which is funded using state money, to be a hub in light of a growing nationwide epidemic that has killed thousands. In 2016, there were 4,652 drug overdose deaths in the state, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration report . About 1,848 of them are on Overdose Free PA, which is a partnership of several state organizations and run by Pitt's Pennsylvania Opioid Overdose Reduction Technical Assistance Center.

“The website was started to be a help to the coroners and a help to the community,” Mirigian said. “The coroner has to be willing to contribute their data. They have to sign off on it.”

The data provided by coroners is broken down into several categories, including gender, race, location of death, age and type of drugs in the person's system. Coroners track their information differently, making it a challenge to coordinate the information in one spot.

“We have counties that do paper records,” Mirigian said, adding that researchers have manually input that data. “It's such a service to the community that we don't mind doing that.”

That service is important to employees in various counties who are deluged with deaths, Bacha said.

“The time and work that's involved, a lot of these offices are understaffed, underpaid,” he said. “Anything is a help. It's obviously important because (the epidemic is) not going away.”

In addition to the website, Overdose Free PA plans epidemic response efforts with numerous counties and tracks where opioid overdose antidote naloxone is available. DEA officials worked with Overdose Free PA on the agency's 2016 report.

Spokesman Patrick Trainor said the DEA uses Overdose Free PA to track specific drugs and change enforcement strategies.

“What they do is phenomenal,” he said. “It would be our wish that they have data from all 67 counties.”

The majority in Western Pennsylvania share their statistics, as do a few others near Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Scranton. Residents and police have used the numbers to better protect their communities and those who are addicted, Mirigian said.

That is a critical opportunity to provide, Williams said.

“That data is important to local efforts,” he said. “There's no tool like it.”

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374, or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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