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If there can be a positive in a coroner's annual report, this might be it

Ron Musselman
York Dispatch
York County Coroner Pam Gay poses with some of the year's homicide reports at her office Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. There were 16 homicides in York City in 2019. Bill Kalina photo

The number of deaths caused by drug overdoses in York County dropped for the second consecutive year, according to a report from county Coroner Pam Gay.

The decline is in line with national and statewide trends. 

There were 126 confirmed overdose deaths — primarily involving opioids — in York County in 2019, a 22% drop compared with 2018, according to the coroner's annual report. And it's a 26% drop from 2017, when 171 deaths in York County were caused by drug overdoses, an 11-year high. 

“It's an ongoing battle,” Gay said Friday, Jan. 31. “It’s still the No. 1 cause of traumatic cases in this office.”

Five additional deaths in 2019 were likely caused by drug overdoses, and the results of investigations regarding 12 others were still pending as of Friday. 

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Joseph Stevens, EMS chief for York Emergency Medical Services Inc. in Yoe, said his organization fielded nearly 6,000 calls last year and a number of them involved opioids.

“I would say, in general, the number of overdose deaths is down in York County,” Stevens said. “But we still have spurts here and there where it's bad, and that’s usually when something new comes along that is more potent on the street."

York Emergency Medical Services' coverage region includes York Township, Windsor Township, Yoe and Dallastown. 

Gay reported that the average age for drug deaths has increased in the last few years, going from the low 30s to 37 in 2019. The oldest person to die from an overdose using either heroin or fentanyl was 68, she said.

The uptick in average age is likely the result of federal and state regulations that have cracked down on access to prescription drugs. 

“We kind of anticipated the age of drug deaths going up a little and hitting a little bit of a spike for a few years because people would not have such easy access to prescription opioids," Gay said. “What we’ve found out is that people in their 50s and even 60s used to be prescription users and then they crossed over into using illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl to control their pain.”

Recently, federal officials said life expectancy in the United States increased to about 78.7 years in 2018, ending a 28-year decline. The change was largely due to the decline in drug overdose deaths, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a federal agency.

Stevens said naloxone's availability to the general public has helped cut down on the number of overdose deaths. He said it is available for free or at a low cost at numerous places.

Naloxone is a medication used to quickly reverse opioid overdoses.

“The education part of it with people getting the word out there to other people and saying, ‘Hey, don’t be stupid,’ or telling them it’s something they can’t handle, has been a big part of it,” Stevens said.

“People think naloxone is something new, but I have been here 28 years and we have been giving it out the whole time. It’s just front and center now and playing a much bigger role in our society.”

Nationwide, there were 67,367 drug overdose deaths in 2018 compared with 70,237 the previous year, according to federal statistics. Pennsylvania was one of 14 states where the age-adjusted rate of drug overdoses was lower in 2018 than in 2017. 

But Pennsylvania also had one of the highest adjusted overdose death rates in the country at 36.1 per 100,000 residents.