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Heroin deaths decline puzzles officials

| Wednesday, May 2, 2012, 6:46 p.m.

Westmoreland County officials are wondering what has led to an apparent drop in the number of deaths related to heroin this year -- the first apparent decline in the fatalities since 2002.

County coroner records show that through October, there were 29 accidental drug overdose deaths, 16 related to heroin or methadone, a synthetic form of the drug often used to treat heroin addicts. A determination remains to be made by the coroner's office in eight other possible drug cases this year.

In 2006, the number of accidental drug and heroin-linked deaths peaked in the county, with 55 drug overdose deaths, 32 of which were tied to heroin or methadone.

Paul Cycak, Westmoreland County chief deputy coroner, guessed the decline in deaths might be related to the type of heroin being used or its concentration. Another might be more awareness about how to handle drug overdoses, he said.

"The only thing I can think of is, either they're cutting it more or they're getting them to the hospital sooner," Cycak said.

In late 2006, law enforcement officials were concerned that a bad batch of heroin was in circulation after seven people died in a week. In June 2006, nine people died in Allegheny County from a deadly mix of heroin and the pain reliever fentanyl.

Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci, who said heroin use in Westmoreland County is "at the same level" as in the past, "or increasing slightly," speculated that alternative drugs might be a factor in the decline in heroin-linked deaths.

"Possibly, because there are more methadone clinics opening up, people are seeking help," he said.

Stacy Kriedeman, of the state Health Department, agreed that prevention programs might be a reason for the drop.

"It's difficult to say why heroin-related deaths have dropped in Westmoreland County," Kriedeman said in an e-mail. "A number of factors could be involved in this area as well. The drop in deaths could be related to increased access to methadone and buprenorphine treatment programs, access to better health care, and prevention activities."

Cycak and Marcocci said quick responses by medical personnel might be preventing heroin deaths.

Greg Stull, advanced life support coordinator for Mutual Aid Ambulance Service based in Greensburg, said his group's statistics cannot be easily broken down to show the number of drug overdoses that are handled or the type of drug or drugs involved. Most are related to heroin.

"That is the one we encounter the most," Stull said.

Often, if paramedics suspect a patient is suffering ill effects from an opiate-based drug, they will immediately administer Narcan, a drug that counters the effects of heroin, Stull said.

Stull said his impression is that Mutual Aid, which makes about 65,000 trips annually in covering about two-thirds of Westmoreland County, has been fielding fewer cases related to heroin use.

After heroin deaths raised a concern in the county in 2002, they steadily increased for the next four years, according to the county coroner's office.

In 2002, 12 of the 22 drug overdoses in the county were linked to heroin. In 2003, 13 of the 33 drug deaths were tied to heroin. In 2004, there were 35 drug overdoses, with 15 tied to heroin. The next year there were 50 overdoses, 21 related to heroin.

The number of taxpayer-paid admissions to treatment facilities in Westmoreland and Fayette counties also are down slightly, although the state number continues to increase.

Public-paid admissions in Westmoreland County declined from 562 in fiscal year 2004-05 to 510 in 2005-06 -- the most recent year available in records from the state health department. Fayette County admissions went from 230 to 141 during the same period.

The number of public-paid admissions to treatment facilities went up in the state for the same period.

Records show that in fiscal year 2005-06, there were 26,616 public-paid admissions related to opiates in Pennsylvania, up from 25,435 the previous year. In 2003-04, there were 25,045 admissions, compared to 19,710 in 2002-03.

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