A new report from the Luzerne County Coroner’s office shows a record number of Luzerne County residents died from drug overdoses last year, prompting stepped-up warnings from county officials to drug users and those who care about them.
The 95 overdose deaths in 2015 significantly exceeded the previous high of 70 in 2013, according to the new report. Drug overdoses were the leading killer of county residents after the 1,057 deaths from natural causes, the statistics show.
Heroin was involved in about half of last year’s accidental drug fatalities, the coroner’s office said.
“This is a major issue. It’s an epidemic,” county Manager C. David Pedri said Tuesday. “It’s affected me personally.”
One of Pedri’s close friends recently lost a child to a heroin overdose, he said, and the county prison is loaded with inmates who have repeatedly committed crimes to feed their addiction.
Pedri said he supports continuing the county’s drug and alcohol treatment programs, including a day reporting center and drug treatment court that provide customized addiction recovery plans for offenders.
While providing resources remains a top priority, it’s up to addicts to use them, he said.
“You can beg and plead, but unless the user wants to get better, the user will keep going back to drugs,” Pedri said.
County acting Human Services Division Head Michael Donahue said the continued loss of life is a major concern.
The county recently held two training sessions with law enforcement about administering Narcan, an antidote used to reverse the effects of heroin, Donahue said.
At least two Narcan training sessions for parents and others close to users will be announced soon, Donahue said. The state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) also provides online information about administering and accessing Narcan, also known as naloxone.
“That is just part of the equation. If you know your loved ones are involved in use of opioids or heroin please refer them for help ASAP,” Donahue said.
He also pointed to last week’s alert from county Coroner William Lisman that at least 10 county residents have died this year from heroin mixed with a new synthetic substance called furanyl fentanyl, which is significantly more powerful than heroin.
Officials say drugs laced with forms of fentanyl are passing through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
The problem: Narcan often is ineffective or must be administered several times when furanyl fentanyl is present, officials say.
Lisman said the negative effects of furanyl fentanyl often continue after the initial dose of Narcan wears off, prompting some to wrongly conclude the drug user is in the clear. People overdosing should be transported to the hospital, even if Narcan has been administered, he said.
“The coroner’s warning needs to be heeded,” Donahue said. “Whatever is in the heroin that is on the streets currently is seeming to make it much more potent, and the potential for overdosing is much more prevalent.”
Lisman said a new high will be set in 2016 if something doesn’t change, because the office already has recorded around 55 overdose deaths through May.
“If this continues, by the end of June the number of overdose deaths for half of the year will be equal to the number for the entire year of 2014,” or 67 deaths, he said.
His office stressed it’s not only young adults using heroin.
The average age of those who died from overdoses involving heroin ranged from 35 to 39 from 2011 through 2015, the office said.
A total 77 residents died from other accidental causes, including 44 from motor vehicle crashes, the statistics show.
There also were 67 suicides and 10 homicides in the county last year.
The number of cremations in the county continues to rise, with 1,826 in 2015 compared to 1,787 in 2014. In comparison, the county logged 814 cremations in 2002. Increased public and religious acceptance of cremation have driven the increase, officials have said.