Heroin-related deaths in York County spike in 2017 despite reduction efforts

David Weissman
York Dispatch
FILE - In this June 6, 2017, file photo, a reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Va. The chief justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court told prosecutors she fears that allowing fentanyl and carfentanil into courtrooms as evidence puts people at risk even when the drugs are properly packaged. Some medical experts said a proposal to ban them from courtrooms appears to be driven by a misguided understanding of the real dangers of the substances. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Despite concerted efforts to reduce the impact of heroin and opioids, York County heroin-related deaths could have nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017 by the time all reports are finalized.

And the county coroner said she won't be shocked if the death toll continues to rise this year.

There were 115 confirmed heroin/fentanyl deaths in 2017, with another 28 suspected, according to coroner Pam Gay. That's up from 76 such deaths in 2016, she said.

Gay attributed the sharp spike to the increased prevalence of fentanyl — with a purer, higher concentration of the drugs found in heroin — which she has described as a "ticket to death."

Fentanyl appeared in many of the overdose toxicology reports in 2016, Gay said, but in 2017, it appeared in almost every single case.

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The county and state as a whole have played a more active role in trying to address the crisis in recent years, with increased funding for treatment centers, an emphasis on public awareness and a wider availability of Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an overdose.

Still, Gay said she's not surprised the annual death totals keep climbing. Though she's "cautiously optimistic" a trend reversal could be on the horizon, she said she wouldn't be surprised if the numbers continue rising in 2018.

York County Coroner Pam Gay speaks before the York County Heroin Task Force announces that it will now be governed by and an executive board as the York Regional Opiate Collaborative, naming Dr. Matthew Howie, of York City Bureau of Health, executive director at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Statewide, the most recent drug-related death totals are from 2016, when 4,884 occurred, according to a report compiled by the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association.

That total was up from 3,505 such deaths in 2015 and 2,489 in 2014, the report states.

The report notes that fentanyl was the most prevalent in overdose deaths but also notes other high-frequency drugs, including oxycodone, ethanol and cocaine.

Gay said she believes some of the local efforts, including the York Opioid Collaborative, are already paying off by preventing young kids from picking up the drug in the first place.

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The deaths, she said, are primarily coming from the population that is already addicted, and the only way to reduce that number is through increased access to treatment.

The county recently expanded its drug treatment court from 150 to 250 active participants and converted the program to only accept those battling a heroin or opioid addiction.

Getting those addicted to accept treatment can be difficult, though, and some in treatment making good progress have died after relapsing with a lower tolerance, Gay noted.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.