Centre County overdose deaths are mostly opioid related

As the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania continues to grow, more and more first responders, healthcare providers, lawyers and law enforcement come into contact with people using the drugs.

But if someone’s personal opioid crisis reaches a tipping point, their last contact could be with the county coroner’s office.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association released its report on all overdoses in the Keystone State in 2015. The report showed overall statistics as well as a county-by-county look at the fallout of drug addiction and abuse.

That impact is dramatic. The numbers rose across the commonwealth by more than 1,000 lost lives. In 2014, the total was 2,489 overdose deaths from all manner of drugs. In 2015, it was 3,505, a 40 percent increase in just 12 months.

“If initial data from 2016 is any indication, the number of deaths will continue to increase,” the report stated.

Pennsylvania’s numbers appear to be climbing faster than the national average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationwide overdose deaths rose by just 6.5 percent between 2013 and 2014. The state’s numbers are also higher than the U.S. figures, with 27.4 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 residents in Pennsylvania compared to 14.7 per 100,000 across the country.

The two counties with the highest number of fatalities are, unsurprisingly, the largest population centers. Philadelphia leads the pack with 702 deaths in 2015. Allegheny County came in second with 414 overdose deaths.

Only two Pennsylvania counties, Warren and Sullivan, recorded no overdose deaths last year. Those two counties together have a population less than one-third that of Centre County.

Centre’s numbers fall in the second lowest tier of deaths statewide, with 17 in 2015, down one from the previous year.

Nearby Blair and Cambria, which posted several high-profile drug arrests in recent years, showed more fatal incidents. Blair had 38 overdoses and Cambria 57. Lycoming County has 25 deaths. It is smaller than Centre, but many Centre County drug arrests have been tied to the Lycoming community of Williamsport.

Clearfield County had 14 overdose deaths, just under Centre. The remaining surrounding counties had 10 or fewer overdose deaths.

Centre County had the second highest number of overdoses in northcentral Pennsylvania, topped only by Lycoming, but that number is only impressive compared to the rest of the state. The area’s average of 16.4 deaths per 100,000 still eclipsed the national average. The county’s average of 10.6 percent was less, but surrounding Blair, Cambria, Clearfield, Huntingdon and Lycoming all posted higher numbers by population than the U.S. figures.

The numbers were scary. Even scarier?

Less than a third of those deaths statewide were from illegal drugs. Things like heroin and cocaine represented 30 percent of the fatal overdoses. The next largest killer were opioids at 28 percent.

In Centre County, those ranks are reversed. The biggest threat in Happy Valley came from opioids, which made up 34 percent, or about six of the overdoses. Illegal drugs came in second with 23 percent or about four deaths.

“We are averaging nine people a day. That’s up from seven a year ago. The increase is just alarming,” said state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, in June.

According to the new report, that number has now increased to 10 overdose deaths per day in Pennsylvania.

The state, both in the legislature and at the governor’s mansion, continues to pursue solutions. Benninghoff, a former Centre County coroner, has been conducting hearings on the problem and possible fixes.

“It’s growing and I suspect probably not going to get better,” he said. “Centre County is not insulated from it.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce