Blair sees uptick in overdose deaths

County averaging one death per week

In Blair County, the number of overdose deaths is averaging one per week based on 2017 autopsy reports compiled by Coroner Patricia Ross.

“We had 52 in the end, just a little higher than last year’s,” Ross said.

The coroner recently filed 2017 autopsy reports in the prothonotary’s office at the courthouse, attributing 49 deaths to overdoses, a number that increased after the receipt of more information, to 52.

A year ago, the 2016 autopsy reports identified overdose deaths at 45, but it ended up at 48, Ross said.

Judy Rosser, director of Blair Drug & Alcohol Partnership which offers programs and treatment options for local residents, said she wouldn’t offer a prediction as to when the county’s number of overdose deaths will start dropping.

“I remain hopeful because we have so much more awareness with this issue,” Rosser said. “It’s starting to be treated like an epidemic … and I’ve never had more partners than I do now. People do want to be part of the solution.”

Almost two decades ago, Blair County’s deaths due to drug overdoses was in the single digits.

There were nine in 1999, Ross said.

The numbers began climbing incrementally thereafter, not only locally but also throughout the state. In January, Gov. Tom Wolf declared the state’s opioid addiction epidemic to be a public health emergency, thereby increasing resources to address the issue.

The spike in overdose deaths in 2015, Ross said, can be blamed on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used for pain treatment that can be combined with heroin to increase potency. It was 2015 when the coroner’s reports attributed 38 deaths to various drug overdoses, a significant increase over the 22 overdose deaths reported in 2014.

In Ross’ reports detailing 2017’s deaths, she and her deputies labeled “multi-drugs” as the reason behind the majority of overdose deaths. In a few cases, they listed specific drugs such as fentanyl, methadone and heroin.

Three deaths, Ross said, were linked to carfentanil and one of its variations, parafluorofentanyl.

Carfentil is a drug that’s been described as 100 times stronger than fentanyl. Because carfentanil is typically used as a tranquilizer for large animals, human exposure to small amounts have been identified as a significant risk.

Ross’ reports show a wide age range for those who died of drug overdoses. Many were in their 30s.

Others fell into the 45- to 65-year old age group who Rosser said are at risk of becoming addicts through the use of opiate prescription drugs typically offered for pain management.

“Our prescribing rate in Blair County is 500,000 pills a month, meaning we have a heavy opiate use in that age group,” she said. “We’re working to address that.”

Ross’ annual reports also identified some health-related concerns that have surfaced in previous years. Heart issues remain the prevalent cause of death, often linked to diabetes, obesity and smoking.

Reports showed that 17 deaths were ruled as suicides, the youngest being 12 and the oldest being 83. That was slightly higher than the 14 reported in 2016 which was down from 25 suicides reported in 2015.

Among accidental deaths were four people who died of smoke inhalation during three residential fires.

Blunt force trauma was a common cause of death for those in vehicle accidents. That included the 18-year-old Duncansville teenager who died April 14 while riding an all-terrain vehicle that crashed in Greenfield Township. Her neck was fractured, Ross said.

Other accidental deaths included a 1-month-old infant who died May 29 and a 5-month-old infant who died July 22, both in Altoona. Co-sleeping was listed as a factor in both deaths, and it’s been a factor listed in previous years’ autopsy reports.

“Small, tiny babies cannot sleep with others,” Ross said.

Accidental deaths also included numerous falls, such as ones from wheelchairs, beds, down stairs and after operations.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

Support group

Blair Drug and Alcohol Partnership last year organized Healing Hearts, a grief support group for those who have lost a loved one to addiction. The group meets at 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month at the agency’s headquarters at 3001 Fairway Drive.