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Overdoses in Pennsylvania declined in 2018 — but the state is still losing 12 people a day

About 4,492 people died of overdoses in Pennsylvania in 2018, and an opioid was involved in 82 percent of the deaths.

In this Oct. 22, 2018 file photo, a fentanyl user holds a needle near Kensington and Cambria in Philadelphia.
In this Oct. 22, 2018 file photo, a fentanyl user holds a needle near Kensington and Cambria in Philadelphia.Read moreDavid Maialetti / File Photograph

New data released by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration show that the number of people in Pennsylvania who died of drug overdoses decreased by 18 percent between 2017 and 2018.

But Pennsylvania, among the states most ravaged by the opioid epidemic, is still losing about 12 people every day to a drug overdose.

“The fact that there was a decrease is very encouraging. A lot of agencies and a lot of individuals have been working really, really hard. It’s good to see this is happening,” said Lynn Mirigan, a program director at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, which works with the DEA gathering overdose data. “But there were still a lot of people who died of overdoses last year. You don’t want anyone to die of an overdose in Pennsylvania.”

About 4,492 people died of overdoses in the state in 2018, and an opioid was involved in 82 percent of the deaths. The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is stronger and more addictive than heroin, is driving most of the state’s deaths.

The drug was present in 70 percent of 2018′s overdose deaths, up from 67 percent in 2017. Another 23 percent of overdose deaths involved fentanyl analogs, which have a similar chemical makeup.

Drug overdoses are disproportionately affecting younger Pennsylvanians, the DEA said — with fentanyl a particular danger to the young. In fatal overdoses among 15- to 24-year-olds, fentanyl was present 78 percent of the time, Mirigan said. In deaths among 25- to 34-year-olds, fentanyl was present 82 percent of the time.

“To see the impact fentanyl in particular is having in the younger demographic is really frightening,” said Laura Hendrick, the field intelligence manager for the DEA in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Rachel Levine, the state secretary of health, said fentanyl deaths among young people show that it’s essential to fund substance use prevention programs in schools. Reducing opioid prescriptions, lowering barriers to treatment, and distributing naloxone are other top priorities for the state, she added.

The majority of Pennsylvania’s overdose victims, 79 percent, were white, the DEA reported; 13 percent of overdose victims were African American, and 3 percent were Hispanic. That’s consistent with the state’s general demographics, the DEA said.

DEA officials said many counties are seeing decreases in overdoses as the state works to combat a crisis that killed more than 3,000 people in Philadelphia alone in the last three years.

Philadelphia 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 said.

The 11 counties in Southwest Pennsylvania, which include Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, saw a 41 percent drop in overdose death rates. It’s likely too early to tell what caused the shift there, Mirigan said.

“It’s an interesting finding that is going to need to be explored by all of the different disciplines that are involved in [combating the crisis] to see what the dynamics are out there that have led to this type of decrease,” Hendrick said.

“There’s a multitude of factors that are in play, everything from law enforcement success to prevention and education programs, naloxone availability, access to treatment. We need to assess what is working well in one place that could be duplicated.”

Levine said she was encouraged by the drops in overdoses statewide and especially in Southwest Pennsylvania, where she cited Pitt’s pharmacy school for working with local officials to combat the crisis.

We have made progress. We are not done by any means. Almost 4,500 individuals lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2018," she said. “And that’s way too high.”