Police in Centre County have seen some victories in curbing the flow of drugs into the area this year.
Local officers and agents from the state Office of Attorney General arrested two men in Boalsburg in April and seized of heroin, other drugs, guns and money. Drug dealers like Landare Hines were convicted this year and sentenced to time in prison.
There have been losses as well.
In May, Ferguson Township police responded to a suspected drug overdose at a Cherry Lane residence and found Curtis Kerchner, 30, lying unresponsive in the home. Kerchner died the next day at Mount Nittany Medical Center. Earlier in May, Bellefonte police responded to a suspected drug overdose on West High Street. Roy Simcisko, 27, died shortly afterward.
Toxicology reports are still pending on Kerchner and Simcisko, Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers said. There have been three confirmed overdose deaths in Centre County so far this year, and the number will likely grow to six after the return of toxicology reports, he said.
“There has been, unfortunately, an increase in recent years,” Sayers said.
There were 18 overdose deaths in Centre County last year, according to a report from the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association. There were 11 in 2013 and in prior years, Sayers said his office only recorded about six or seven overdoses in a calendar year.
“The number of overdose deaths are increasing statewide and nationwide and yes, in Centre County, we’re following that pattern,” said State College police Officer Kelly Aston, who also serves on the Centre County Drug Task Force.
Last year, drug overdoses killed more Pennsylvanians than car accidents. There were at least 2,488 drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania, according to the state coroners association.
The number of overdoses could be higher because of a lag time in getting toxicology reports when the data was collected at the end of the year and also, only 54 of the state’s 67 counties provided data for the study. Of the counties that submitted data, many report increases of more than 20 percent.
In contrast, PennDOT reported that 1,195 people died in automobile accidents in 2014, a decrease from previous years.
Most overdoses in Centre County involve opiates, usually a combination of prescription medications and illicit substances like heroin, Sayers said, although one of the deaths this year was found to be caused by an overdose of difluorothane, an inhalant.
The presence of opioid medications factored in a quarter of the fatalities in Pennsylvania, while illegal drugs factored in 24 percent, according to the coroners association report. Heroin, an opiate, was the most common illegal drug coroners reported seeing in fatalities in the report.
Nationally, there were 43,982 overdose deaths in the United States in 2013 and 22,767 of these were related to prescription drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. About 71 percent of the prescription drug deaths involved opiates. Heroin was involved in more than 8,000 overdose deaths reported nationally in 2013.
The figures reflect a two-and-a-half-fold increase in deaths involving prescription opiates, a threefold increase in deaths involving prescription opiate painkillers and a fivefold increase in heroin-related fatalities from 2001 through 2013, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Aston also said that most of what is encountered by police locally is abuse of prescription drugs and heroin. She noted a correlation between the two: some people get hooked after taking the pills either after being prescribed them or taking them illegally and move to heroin because it is cheaper and more accessible on the street.
There are steps someone can take if they suspect someone is suffering a drug overdose, said Rich Kelley, clinical paramedic supervisor at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
Someone should always call 911 first, and then place the overdose victim on their back and check their breathing. The person’s head should be positioned to keep their airway open, and rescue breathing should be administered until EMS personnel arrive if they are not breathing, Kelley said.
Another step to help someone suffering from an opiate overdose is now available to family members of those with addiction, thanks to a state law passed in September.
The law, called Act 139, enables family and friends of people with opiate addictions to get a prescription for Narcan, also known by the generic name naloxone, an opiate blocker.
Some of the more dangerous symptoms of an opioid overdose come when receptors in the brain that regulate breathing and the nervous system are attacked, causing breathing to stop and loss of consciousness. Naloxone works to not only block opiates but also eject them from the receptors.
Naloxone causes an almost immediate reversal of the effects of an overdose and a response, like restored breathing and consciousness, is seen within minutes, said Katelin Speer, clinical pharmacist at the emergency room at Mount Nittany. The drug can induce withdrawal symptoms, like nausea and vomiting, on a patient after it is used, she said.
Kelley said paramedics have been carrying naloxone for about 40 years. All local emergency medical services in the county have it. It can be administered intravenously, nasally, through a tube in the throat and by injection. The kind available to nonmedical professionals through a prescription comes with an auto-injector, similar to an EpiPen.
Narcan only reacts to opiates and doesn’t have an effect if used on someone not experiencing an overdose. Kelley said paramedics often use it as a precaution on calls involving unconscious people after other possible causes, like stroke and hypoglycemia, have been ruled out.
However, Narcan is not meant to be a cure or a free pass, Kelley said, but rather to save the person’s life so they can get treatment, both long term to treat addiction and short term to buy time for additional immediate medical attention by paramedics or at a hospital, he said.
Opiates in a person’s system can outlast the effects of naloxone, Speer said.
“They should be calling 911 right away if they have to use it,” Speer said.
A ‘lifesaving tool’
The act also enables other first responders, like police and firefighters, to carry and administer the substance. In April, a plan to equip Pennsylvania State Police with Narcan was announced.
Trooper David McGarvey, public information officer for Troop G, said that state police assigned to troops around Erie, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh were given the kits first on a trial basis.
The first use of Narcan by state police to revive an overdose victim was reported on June 12 in Uniontown.
State police with Troop G have received training with Narcan and all Troop G police cruisers, including ones at Philipsburg and Rockview barracks in Centre County, were all equipped with Narcan by the end of June, McGarvey said.
Local police departments all have training in first aid, but none carry Narcan in their vehicles. Aston said State College police have decided to carry naloxone and hope to have kits in their vehicles in about six months, following consultation with emergency medical personnel and training.
Other local police said that though there is no plan to carry naloxone, that could change after future reassessments and re-evaluations.
“Law enforcement officers are often the first on the scene of an overdose,” Aston said. “It makes sense to put this lifesaving tool in the hands of law enforcement.”