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York County coroner: Accidents up, suicides down in 2020

Harper Ho
York Dispatch

A jump in accidental deaths at home and a record number of fatal overdoses combined in 2020 to push the York County Coroner's Office's caseload to one of the highest years in its history.

But the number of suicides the agency investigated plunged, even while the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a months-long lockdown and a significant increase in unemployment. 

The coroner's office investigated 797 total deaths in 2020, compared with 715 in 2019 and 688 in 2018, according to the annual report from York County Coroner Pam Gay.

There were 172 accidental deaths that occurred in or around the home, an increase from 126 in 2019, the report stated.

Gay said the bulk of these deaths were older folks who fell at home, for example, and then later died from their injuries.

Of the total, 25 falls happened outside the county and the individuals later died in York County, according to the report.

Gay said people being stuck at home for months on end because of the lockdown could be a contributing factor, but it's hard to tell.

"When they get out (of the house) they can fall, too," she said. "That could be a part of it. It's tough to really have some hard data on that. Are most of these occurring at home? Sure." 

The number of suicides significantly declined, according to the report. There were 60 in 2020, down from 70 in 2019. There were 92 in 2018. 

York County Coroner Pam Gay holds a homicide report at her office Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. There were 16 homicides in York City in 2019. Bill Kalina photo

"We've been fortunate even with the pandemic that our suicides have been low as they have, although there's still 60 preventable deaths that we would rather not have. It still causes a lot of pain and hardship in families," Gay said. 

Many experts and politicians nationwide predicted the lockdowns in particular could result in a spike in suicides. 

Last year was also the deadliest year in York County for drug deaths, with 196 fatal overdoses in 2020 — not including 13 pending suspected drug cases.

Drug overdoses had declined in York County for two years following a peak of 171 deaths in 2017, when the opioid epidemic swept through much of the country.

Officials believe the coronavirus shutdown exacerbated opioid deaths in part by cutting people off from access to in-person recovery support services. Experts say that lack of access, coupled with the hardships of the pandemic, such as stress and isolation, led some people to turn to drugs as an escape.

More:York County had a record number of overdose deaths in 2020

More:Shootings jumped 34% in York City in 2020

The annual report for the first time added a new death category — COVID-19 — which the coroner linked 19 deaths to, only a portion of the 419 total coronavirus deaths York County had in 2020. The remaining 400 COVID-19 deaths were certified by physicians, Gay said.

"What we always learn from the report is we learn areas that we continue to need to provide education, such as prevention and awareness," Gay said, noting that were five sleep-related infant deaths in 2020. "Those are deaths that are really preventable if people just follow the guidelines."

As with suicides, there were fewer homicides last year — 19 homicides compared with 22 in 2019.

The coroner's office doesn't handle all deaths that happen in York County, Gay said, but the office did screen 1,957 deaths in total last year, and 797 became coroner cases.

Gay said a death becomes a coroner case generally when it involves traumatic injuries or unexpected deaths, if the identity of the deceased or next-of-kin is unknown or if there might be a criminal element to the death.  

The caseload at the coroner's office has climbed nearly every year for the last decade, with only 2012 and 2015 seeing a decrease in deaths. The highest case increase was 102 in 2014.