More people died in 2019 of a drug overdose in Northumberland County than ever before.
Coroner James F. Kelley said 40 people died in the county of a drug overdose last year. Results in one additional case are pending investigation, he said.
Northumberland County’s total represents a 60-percent increase over the 24 fatal overdoses reported by Kelley for 2018. The county’s previous record-high was 30 overdose deaths set in 2017.
“Fentanyl is really showing up in a lot of the deaths. We’re also seeing a lot of methamphetamine,” Kelley said, noting often the drugs show up together in toxicology testing.
According to Kelley, last year’s overdoses split 27-13 along gender lines with males accounting for a majority of the deaths. Ages range from 20s to 60s, he said, with most of the deaths occurring in Northumberland County’s coal region.
“We get some from the northern end of the county but not as many as in this region,” Kelley said.
Union County’s overdose death toll rose to 5 cases from 3 in 2018, Coroner Dominick Adamo said. Snyder County saw a drop over that same period, ending 2019 at 3, down from 8, according to data from Coroner Bill Pheasant.
Figures for Montour County were not yet available, Coroner Scott Lynn said.
To find addiction services, utilize Pennsylvania’s Get Help Now program. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357), use the provider search at www.ddap.pa.gov or contact a county drug and alcohol agency: Northumberland County, 570-495-2040; Montour, Snyder, Union counties, 570-275-4962.
The local data comes as national reports show that in 2018, there was a 4.1 percent decline nationally and significant decreases in 20 states including Pennsylvania where fatal overdoses dropped 18.5 percent, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
National and statewide data for 2019 are not yet available.
Wider access to addiction treatment coupled with the increased use of naloxone, the overdose-reversal medication, can generally be attributed to the decreases in drug deaths statewide and nationally, said Jordan Barbour, director of clinical operations for psychiatry and addiction medicine, Geisinger.
Barbour and another Geisinger specialist, Dr. Margaret Jarvis, expressed cautious optimism.
“We don’t have enough data yet. We may be seeing a blip. We could be back in a maelstrom in a year,” said Jarvis, chair of Geisinger’s addiction medicine division.
Perhaps the difference in Northumberland County compared to areas experiencing a decrease in fatal overdoses is fentanyl. Barbour described his comments on the topic as speculation, but said what he’s hearing from providers and specialists is that the powerful synthetic opioid is proving ubiquitous. Such speculation mirrors what coroners like Kelley have said.
“When that particular drug is in the supply, it can be quite lethal,” Barbour said, adding that fentanyl can be laced into drugs unknown to the user or mixed knowingly with the ingestion of other substances.
“We know we need more MAT,” Jarvis said, using the acronym for medication-assisted treatment.
Vivitrol and Suboxone are name-brand medications used in MAT outpatient therapy. It’s intended to be part of a broader treatment regimen which could include behavioral therapy and other psychiatric services.
Barbour said Geisinger has seen 3,000 patients at its MAT clinics. Over the past three years, he said there’s been an 81-percent decrease in deaths for those enrolled in this therapy. The existing clinics can take on more patients, too, he said.