Westmoreland County coroner expects 2017 fatal drug overdose tally to hit 193
Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha now anticipates closing the books for 2017 with a record 193 overdose deaths and said the number could surpass 200 this year.
Although Bacha predicted Dec. 1 that the county would tally at least 179 fatal overdoses in 2017, a full month lay ahead. The prior record of 174 was set in 2016.
On Monday, Bacha updated the 2017 figures to 172 confirmed overdose deaths, plus another 21 suspected fatalities awaiting formal toxicology verification. The projected 193 deaths mark an 11 percent increase over 2016.
“We're 99 percent certain the final number will be 193, but we have to wait for formal verification,” Bacha said.
It marks the ninth consecutive year that the county's overdose death toll has risen .
Bacha noted that early in 2017 officials were fearful that the county was on pace to surpass 200 deaths for the year, but the number trailed off in late fall and winter.
“We usually have a lot more cases in late fall and December. ... I remember Christmas Day of 2015 we investigated five deaths. But this year, fortunately, it wasn't as bad,” the said.
A Tribune-Review report on Dec. 29 on the rising opioid death toll revealed that from 2007 through 2016, opioids claimed 825 lives in Westmoreland County .
Among the troubling statistical trends released Monday, Bacha said the number of fentanyl-related deaths continues to climb. About 125 of the 172 deaths — 73 percent — confirmed this year involved the synthetic opioid, a 10 percent increase from the year before.
Because fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, less of it can be packaged in stamp bags that typically are sold as heroin. Police have reported seeing stamp bags purported to be heroin that contain little or no heroin at all, but rather fentanyl or a mixture of both.
“The fentanyl really took off in 2016, and that is continuing this year,” Bacha said.
That fentanyl is a critical component in fatal overdose cases does not surprise Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci.
“I wish I could say I'm surprised, but I'm really not. We've been watching this for over a year now,” he said.
Marcocci said most of the fentanyl comes from overseas laboratories.
“There is no quality control with fentanyl. People really don't know what they are getting when it's cut,” he said.
The coroner's office had a brief respite during the first week of January, when the staff didn't investigate a single fatal overdose. But Bacha doesn't expect that to continue.
In July, Dr. John P. Gallagher, who chairs the Pennsylvania Medical Society's opioid task force, cited national data from science and medical publications, in predicting the opioid death rate in Pennsylvania will not peak until 2024.
“That's what all the epidemiologists are predicting. ... We're hoping, praying and keeping our fingers crossed that that will not be the case, and all the epidemiologists' predictions are wrong,” Bacha said.
“But from what I've seen... I expect our (overdose) numbers to continue to increase,” he said.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.