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Jeannette leads Westmoreland in overdose deaths, officials look to reverse trend

Paul Peirce
| Tuesday, April 3, 2018, 1:30 p.m.
An overall view of downtown Jeannette looking down Clay Avenue.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
An overall view of downtown Jeannette looking down Clay Avenue.

Jeannette officials have asked the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force to help them deal with a troubling trend in overdose deaths revealed in the coroner's analysis of 2017 cases.

The city had 21 fatal overdoses last year, surpassing the county's largest municipality, Hempfield Township, which had 19. Yet Hempfield has more than 41,300 residents, more than quadruple Jeannette's 9,300.

“When you look at the populations ... it is amazing. Usually it's Hempfield, Derry and Unity townships with the higher populations that have had the most,” Coroner Ken Bacha said.

Hempfield has led in the number of fatal overdoses in three of the past four years, coroner's records show: 19 in 2016, 13 in 2015, and 12 in 2013.

Unity Township, with about 22,300 residents, topped the list in 2014, when nine people there died of overdoses.

Jeannette had 14 overdose deaths in 2016 but just four in 2015, three in 2014 and two in 2013.

The spike in fatalities in Jeannette didn't go unnoticed by the drug task force, which the county launched in 2013 to address the growing opioid addiction crisis by assisting communities and educating the public about the problem, Director Tim Phillips said.

“We saw that in the report, too,” he said. “We have been approached by community leaders there to see how the task force may be able to assist with the problem, and we intend to do that.”

The task force and others on the front line of the county's drug war, such as police and first responders, indicate that the availability of illicit street drugs draws addicts into Jeannette.

Randy Highlands, Jeannette EMS director of operations, estimated about 20 percent of overdose calls last year “were not Jeannette residents.”

“That's the theory we feel that is occurring, too. It's a more transient situation there,” Phillips said.

The last fatal overdose Highlands assisted on was a call in October from a city parking lot where the victim could not be revived.

“He was from out of town,” Highlands said.

In short, addicts head to Jeannette to buy drugs, then use them in the city and, in some cases, overdose and die.

County Detective Tony Marcocci said he believes many addicts “are craving that next hit when they go to purchase it” and inject, snort or ingest the heroin as soon as they get it — “if not immediately, shortly thereafter.”

While Highlands didn't have exact numbers, he has noticed an increase in ambulance transports of overdose victims in Jeannette “each of the last three years.”

“We do have a problem, but a lot of other communities do, too,” Highlands said, noting that drug overdoses “are a problem everywhere.”

Mayor Curtis Antoniak and police Chief Shannon Binda did not return messages seeking comment.

Indeed, the spike in drug deaths in Jeannette correlates with the rise in lethal fentanyl-related overdoses in the region. Deaths caused by the synthetic opioid increased 38 percent since 2016 and 463 percent since 2015, records show.

The county saw a record number of overdose deaths in 2017 with 193, and also recorded the highest amount of fentanyl-related deaths — 141 — in its history, Bacha reported.

Fentanyl has become popular with drug dealers as a cutting agent, direct substitution for heroin or in manufacturing counterfeit oxycodone pills.

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 across the county 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.

On a positive note, Highlands said the number of ambulance calls for overdose emergencies in Jeannette has declined this year.

“I don't want to jinx us, but those calls have been declining since the tail end of last year,” Highlands said.

Bacha reported that 2018 statistics show a sharp decline in overdose fatalities countywide. Through Tuesday, the coroner's office had investigated 30 fatal overdoses, confirming eight with 22 pending. If all are confirmed, that would put the county on pace for 120 overdose deaths this year — the lowest number since 2014.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.

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