Pennsylvania is in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic of drug abuse and drug-related overdose deaths
Pennsylvania is one of the hardest hit states when it comes to drug use. The opioid epidemic that we see all across the nation is especially rampant in this north-eastern state, and that means that more and more people are dying drug-related deaths. Despite the attempts of Pennsylvania law enforcement and public officials to reduce the epidemic, the number of drug overdose deaths in the state has risen significantly in the last years.
In fact, more than 4,600 Pennsylvania residents died of drug overdoses in 2016, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA will release its report, “Analysis of Drug-Related Overdose Deaths in Pennsylvania, 2016,” by the end of June. However, they have released some key findings and they are staggering. The total number of deaths due to a drug overdose, 4,642, itself is a 37% increase over the total for 2015 and equates to over a dozen overdose fatalities each day.
Officials from the DEA have expressed concern about the state of drug abuse in Pennsylvania. Gary Tuggle, DEA special agent for the Philadelphia field division said, “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic of drug abuse and drug-related overdose deaths that impacts every corner of the state and all of its residents. The collection, analysis, and dissemination of this data contribute to a robust information sharing environment amongst the fields of law enforcement, public health, treatment, and public policy, all of whom are working together to address the drug crisis in Pennsylvania.”
Opioid drugs, prescription and illicit, were responsible for 85% of the overdose deaths in Pennsylvania. Taking over as the number one killer is fentanyl and fentanyl-containing substances, with over half of the overdose deaths being attributed to the drug. Last year’s number one, heroin, is second in the 2016 report findings with approximately 45% of drug-related deaths resulting from its use. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times stronger than morphine, and 30-50 times stronger than heroin. It is often mixed with heroin or other substances, sometimes without the users’ knowledge, often causing a fatal outcome.
Other key findings in the DEA report show that those with the highest risks of dying from an opioid-related overdose are in the 25 to 34 years old age bracket, with a 970% increase in their chances of heroin-related death. The second most at risk group is the 15 to 24 age bracket, with a 380% increase in their chances of a fentanyl-related overdose death.
The key findings that have been released provide a preview of the full DEA report that will follow in a few weeks. The full report will provide a breakdown of drug overdose deaths by county. Data that has been released shows that there is a significant increase in fentanyl use in Allegheny County, home of metropolitan Pittsburg. The drug was found in as many as two-thirds of the drug overdose fatality cases in and around Pittsburg, and in about half of the drug deaths in Philadelphia.
The data for the DEA report was gathered from district attorneys and coroners across the state, and the final report is being completed along with the School of Pharmacy at the University of Pittsburg. It’s estimated that there were over 60,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide in 2016.
In addition to Allegheny and Philadelphia Counties, Lehigh and Northampton Counties have also seen a dramatic surge in drug overdose deaths. The 2015 DEA report showed a statewide increase in drug overdose deaths of 23% over the previous year. In Lehigh County, the 2015 overdose death rate was the 15th highest rate among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, with 32 deaths per 100,000 residents.
However, in the 2016 report, Lehigh County’s numbers were significantly higher. In fact, the drug overdose deaths for Lehigh and Northampton Counties in 2016 are nearly equal to the deaths reported for the previous two years combined.
Northampton County reported 58 drug overdose deaths involving heroin or other opiate drugs. That is an increase of one death per week in the county and just one death short of the county’s total for 2014 and 2015 combined.
In Lehigh County, there were 38 opiate-related deaths and 73 deaths that were related to a combination of substances in 2016, making the total for the year 111 deaths. That is close to the 2015 and 2014 combined total of 116 drug-related deaths in the county.
Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf stated that the new data “reinforce that Pennsylvania and the federal government must fight even harder to combat the damage done to our families and communities by heroin and opioids and the disease of addiction.”
“We must continue to put resources into treatment and tools for law enforcement, health professionals and families on the front lines, while also expanding education and prevention programs and ending the stigma of addiction,” Wolf said.
The Governor has called for funding to continue for the 45 outpatient treatment programs statewide, county-level efforts, and dedicated funding for naloxone (an opioid drug overdose antidote). Governor Wolf has also discouraged reducing funding for Medicaid, which he says has assisted in substance abuse treatment across the state.
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