Fatal overdoses in Westmoreland continue to plunge in 2019 | TribLIVE.com
Westmoreland

Fatal overdoses in Westmoreland continue to plunge in 2019

Paul Peirce
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Overdose deaths in Westmoreland County this year are on pace to fall short of 100 for the first time since 2014, according to Coroner Ken Bacha’s office.

Overdose deaths drastically fell in 2018 by 37 percent from a record 193 in 2017 to 122 last year, and the number of deaths recorded through the first four months of 2019 have dropped another 21 percent compared to the same period in 2018.

“It’s definitely encouraging. I cannot put my finger on anything exactly that may be responsible for it, but it’s really very good news,” Bacha said.

From January through April, Bacha’s office has confirmed 20 overdose deaths, with another 10 cases pending toxicology results. In 2018, the coroner recorded 38 deaths in that same four-month period, with 67 fatal overdoses in the same span in 2017, according to deputy coroner Josh Zappone, who records statistics in Bacha’s office.

The county is on pace for 90 overdose deaths in 2019. Five years ago, the county saw 87 overdose deaths. The annual figure topped 100 every year since.

Related story: Overdose deaths drop dramatically, bringing hope that awareness is working

Bacha believes multiple, combined efforts to stem opioid abuse in the region are playing a role in the decline. Those include increased educational programs, law enforcement actions, media announcements, more drug rehabilitation facilities opening locally and the increased public availability of overdose-reversal drug naloxone, or Narcan.

“It may just be the overall public awareness of the problem through all of these efforts. I know I can’t go to a grocery store or restaurant without somebody bringing it up,” Bacha said.

Tim Phillips, executive director of the county’s Drug Overdose Task Force, said the recent statistics are certainly welcome.

“But, unfortunately, people are still overdosing. We may see the abuse of opioids leveling off right now, but we also see a greater use of cocaine, crack and methamphetamines in the area,” Phillips said. “I believe the reduction has come about through combined efforts from the district attorney’s office, law enforcement, the additional rehabilitation facilities available in the county, the county’s drug task force, education programs and the increased public availability of Narcan has also had an positive impact.”

Despite the recent “good news,” Phillips said the efforts have to continue.

“The fact is too many people are still dying. We’re losing somebody’s somebody,” he said.

Westmoreland County is not the only area in southwestern Pennsylvania experiencing a recent decline in overdose deaths.

U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady in Pittsburgh recently commended the dramatic decrease in overdose deaths in the region in 2018. Brady said overdose deaths were down an average of 43% throughout the 25 counties included in the region.

He noted the many of the decreases occurred in the counties most impacted by the crisis, including of 50% in Beaver and Butler, 47% in Allegheny and Lawrence, 44% in Washington and 37% in Westmoreland.

Brady’s office recently created a Narcotics and Organized Crime Section and filled it with the office’s most experienced narcotics prosecutors. He appointed an Opioid Coordinator to serve as a point person for the district’s strategic efforts, and obtained funding from the Department of Justice for new federal prosecutors.

Bacha said his office has definitely benefited from the reduced caseload and taxpayers also benefit.

“Our budget had grown to over $1.2 million (in 2018), but our actual expenses came back under $1 million last year. We figure every overdose costs $3,000 per investigation with autopsies, toxicology tests and all the man hours,” Bacha said. “We’ve always just been a small office here, but the overdoses in recent years have had a very big impact. The fewer cases are certainly welcome.”

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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