Since July 1, 2017, when Selinsgrove resident Delaney Farrell died less than a month shy of her 24th birthday from a heroin and carfentanil overdose, more than 14,000 Pennsylvanian deaths have been attributed to an opioid overdose.
Brian Farrell, of Selinsgrove, and Bridget Farrell Kort, of Danville, helped raised the alarm to the opioid epidemic in the Valley by including in their daughter’s obituary an unflinchingly honest poem she had written about her struggles with drug addiction. The obituary went viral and has been viewed millions of times.
Five years later, the opioid crisis persists.
“It’s frustrating. Even with all the awareness and the resources out there, people are dying by the hundreds every day,” said Kort. “But, that’s the disease for you. Once it takes hold it’s very hard to fight.”
The COVID-19 pandemic augmented the problem due to the isolation and heightened mental health issues people faced, said Dr. Perry Meadows, medical director of government programs at Geisinger and chairman of the Regional Opioid Coalition composed of law enforcement, medical professionals and community members which meets monthly.
In 2020, 91,000 deaths nationwide were attributed to drug overdoses. In 2021, that number rose to 100,300 and this year, the U.S. is on track to lose 108,000 to drug overdose, Meadows said.
“One of the biggest threats is the unchecked influx of fentanyl across the southern border,” he said.
Following a rash of overdoses in Northumberland County this summer, Shamokin Police Chief Ray Siko spoke out about the city’s seizure of a load of carfentanil, a synthetic opioid that is more lethal than fentanyl and heroin.
His warning came out just as Pennsylvania Attorney General and Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro released a special report about the dangers of fentanyl contributing to the rising number of fatalities.
“Fentanyl has rapidly replaced heroin as the dominant opioid in Pennsylvania. Last year, our Bureau of Narcotics Investigation seized more fentanyl than they had in the last four years combined,” he said, and the seizures continue to climb at an astonishing rate.
In the first three months of 2022, the state seized about 40 times the amount of fentanyl compared to heroin — that’s more fentanyl than was seized in all of 2021.
The report said more counterfeit fentanyl-laced pills are flooding the streets and driving up the number of overdose deaths, in large part experts say due to users not knowing what substances they are taking.
There were more accidental overdose deaths in 2021 than during the 20-year period from 1979 to 1998.
“What we know about fentanyl is the death is very, very quick,” said Snyder County District Attorney Michael Piecuch.
Often a needle is found still in the body or near the body of someone who has overdosed on the drug.
That happened about a week ago when an unidentified individual in Snyder County was found dead of a possible fentanyl overdose, he said.
“It’s not confirmed. We’re still waiting on toxicology reports,” Piecuch said.
Northumberland County Coroner James F. Kelley hasn’t seen a decline in overdose deaths despite the nationwide focus on the opioid crisis in recent years.
“It’s staying steady,” he said. “Since the middle of August I’ve been to Allentown (where autopsies on people who have died in the county are conducted) 14 times. Twelve of those have either been drug-related or suspected drug-related.”
“We’ve been in an opioid epidemic for 30 years. Now it’s an opioid overdose epidemic,” said Olivia Oden, the coordinator of the Regional Opioid Coalition serving Northumberland, Snyder, Union, Montour and Columbia counties.
According to data compiled by Kelley’s daughter, Mary Kate Kelley, who is training to be a funeral director, there have been 25 deaths related to drug overdose in Northumberland County and possibly another five, pending autopsy results.
Of those 25 confirmed overdose fatalities, she said, 17 showed fentanyl was in their system; 13 involved methamphetamines and 16 indicated a man-made drug of unknown origin.
James Kelley said rising death rates can be attributed to the strong pull narcotics have on an addict and the unknown and dangerously potent substances that are being sold on the street.
Addicts often have no idea what they’re injecting or ingesting, as fentanyl is turning up in many substances, even marijuana, said Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Matulewicz.
“It’s dangerous to buy street drugs,” he said. “You’re putting your life in a drug dealer’s hands.”
Matulewicz was so disturbed about the rash of overdose deaths this summer, he released a statement vowing to pursue them as homicides.
“I believe (OD-fatalities) have been ncreasing. It’s all over the place,” he said.
“What’s amazing is that there are a lot of people on drugs. Older people, successful people,” said Brian Farrell.
Early education about the reality of opioids and other narcotics, particularly street drugs, he said, is vital in curbing the death toll.
“It just takes one wrong move with this stuff. It’s Russian roulette if you don’t know there’s fentanyl in it,” Farrell said.
James Kelley supports early education about the dangers of drugs.
“It has to be part of the curriculum, starting in kindergarten,” he said.
Oden, a STIGMA reduction and education coordinator at United Way, said the focus is on youth prevention and there are educational programs offered to area schools, as well as the United in Recovery program of free Narcan and Naloxone, which can be effective in treating an opioid overdose in an emergency situation.
She’s heard from several who have had to use the medication and has used it herself.
“I walked into a Sheetz bathroom and saw someone overdosing,” said Oden. “I used Naloxone and called 911. You just never know.”