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YORK COUNTY

York County drug overdose deaths continue decline but there's work left to do

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Drug overdose deaths appear to be declining in York County, reflecting a nationwide trend — but experts say there's still a lot of work to do.

"We're seeing a trend, perhaps, forming that there is a reduction both at the national level and at the state level, which is encouraging," said Dr. Mitch Crawford, director of addiction services at WellSpan Health. "But it certainly does not signal 'Mission Accomplished.'"

So far this year, York County has reported 109 drug overdose deaths through October. While there are still two months left to go — including the holiday season, which typically sees an uptick in overdoses — that's roughly on par with the 138 fatal overdoses the coroner's office reported in 2021. It's also on track for a significant reduction from the 204 reported in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A lot of variables go into drug overdose deaths, Crawford said. Communities are working to provide more treatment, attempts have been made to reduce the stigma around overdoses, and access to treatments like Narcan has improved.

It's also important to note, Crawford said, that the data is provisional and it's still early.

"York County Coroner Pam Gay makes a point while appearing on a panel with David Sunday, chief deputy prosecutor for the York County District Attorney's Office, during a public hearing \"Heroin and Opioid Addiction, Treatment and Recovery\" at the Yorktowne Hotel Tuesday, August 18, 2015. The hearing was sponsored by Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the state general assembly. Bill Kalina - bkalina@yorkdispatch.com"

The local pattern follows nationwide trends of drug overdose deaths decreasing, though health experts say it's too early to celebrate and that the reduction may be related to returning to pre-COVID levels of deaths.

"We must not forget . . . that the epidemic still persists, and has never truly left us even during thepandemic," York County Coroner Pam Gay wrote earlier this year. "There is something to be said, however, for human interaction and gainful employment — they both do a world of good for those struggling to recover."

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, there were about 107,600 overdose deaths for the 12-month period between July 2021 and June 2022, 40 fewer than in the 2021 calendar year.

Pennsylvania reported 5,243 overdose deaths in that time period. It had predicted 5,467.

“We may just be returning to a pre-COVID level. I think we’ll need at least a year more of data to confirm that,” Erin Winstanley, a West Virginia University researcher focused on the overdose epidemic’s health effects, told The Associated Press.

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"Today’s data continue to show a hopeful trend of a decrease in overdose deaths," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He called for more federal funding for prevention and treatment.

FILE - OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt., Feb. 19, 2013. The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says a comprehensive review of the opioid painkillers that triggered the nation's ongoing drug overdose epidemic is in the works. But FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf faces skepticism about the long-promised review from lawmakers, experts and advocates after years of delay. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Attorney General and Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro released a report warning Pennsylvanians that the dominant opioid in Pennsylvania has shifted to fentanyl from heroin.

“The rise in fentanyl has also contributed to a rise in overdose deaths. Last year, we lost 15 Pennsylvanians each and every day to a drug overdose," Shapiro said. "Law enforcement and policymakers alike must continue to do more to combat this crisis and devote additional resources to stopping fentanyl at the Southern border."

Crawford said that the country and Pennsylvania could see a reversal of the trend, which has only been happening for a few months.

"What can we do?" Crawford said. "We can continue expanding and continue learning and continue efforts like trauma-informed care, creating more access for treatment and just being better in this space of helping people recover."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.