Statewide, Pennsylvania saw an encouraging drop in fatal overdoses in 2018 — a 18% decrease after years of skyrocketing overdoses. But the drop hasn’t been uniform around the state, a new report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has found.
In 2017, at the height of Pennsylvania’s overdose crisis, counties in southwestern Pennsylvania were weathering some of the highest overdose rates in the state. Just a year later, the 11 counties in the southwest region managed to achieve a 41% drop in overdoses.
Now, counties in eastern and central Pennsylvania are considered to be at the epicenter of the state’s overdose crisis, according to the DEA’s report.
In 2018, Schuylkill County saw its overdose death rate increase from 27 deaths per 100,000 residents to 49 deaths per 100,000 residents. That’s the sixth-highest death rate in Pennsylvania. But just a year ago, the county ranked 39th on that list.
Part of that shift is due to the significant decreases in overdoses in Southwestern Pennsylvania. In July, when the DEA published preliminary data on overdose rates around the state, officials there said it was unclear what was behind those decreases, but that naloxone distribution, access to treatment and other factors could be in play.
Philadelphia had the highest overall fatal overdose rate in Pennsylvania in 2017, and the second-highest in 2018. Still, it was among the 41 counties that saw a decrease in overdoses last year: 1,116 people died of drug overdoses in the city in 2018, down from 1,217 the year before. Twenty-three counties reported increases in deaths, and three saw no change.
The DEA report also found that many people who died of overdoses in 2018 died with multiple drugs in their system. Most -- 87% -- overdose victims had two or more drugs in their system, 46% had four or more drugs, and 16% had six or more drugs.
Fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid that has largely replaced heroin in Philadelphia, was present in 70% of overdose deaths statewide. Other fentanyl-related substances and illicit synthetic opioids were present in 23% of last year’s cases -- up from 18% in 2017.
The majority of Pennsylvania’s overdose victims, 79 percent, were white, the DEA reported; 13 percent were African American, and 3 percent were Hispanic. That’s consistent with the state’s general demographics, the DEA said.
Drug overdoses are also disproportionately affecting younger Pennsylvanians, the DEA said — with fentanyl a particular danger to the young. In fatal overdoses among the 15- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-old age groups, fentanyl was present more than 75 percent of the time.
Cocaine and methamphetamine deaths remained stable statewide between 2017 and 2018, though officials say their use is on the rise.