Drug deaths must raise family urgency

Last week’s report by Blair County Coroner Patricia Ross that there were 45 drug-overdose deaths in this county last year — up from 38 in 2015 and 22 in 2014 — must be a wake-up call for everyone here.

The growing toll has upped the urgency for all families to be vigilant for any sign that the illegal-drug epidemic has touched their household — and, if so, seek help quickly for the user, before an overdose threatens or claims that person’s life.

But as frightening as Blair’s deadly-overdose statistics have become, neighboring Cambria County’s are alarmingly much worse, with 94 fatal overdoses having been confirmed for 2016, with a “handful” of cases still pending, awaiting toxicology results, according to Coroner Jeffrey Lees.

That county had 58 overdose deaths in 2015 and 40 in 2014, Lees said.

The coroner told the Mirror on Monday that, for 2017, five deaths had been confirmed as resulting from overdoses as of Jan. 31, and 17 other deaths believed to have resulted from overdoses were awaiting toxicology results as of Monday.

Those numbers put the county on an alarming path toward 200 or more overdose deaths this year.

This state’s overdose numbers for last year still haven’t been released, but overdose deaths in the commonwealth averaged 10 a day in 2015.

If Cambria and Blair’s 2016 numbers are indicative of a statewide trend, the statewide average for the past 12 months is likely to be significantly — tragically — higher than 2015’s.

Both Ross and Lees have lamented how much consumption of excessive amounts of prescribed drugs have contributed to the growing overdose-death toll.

In an article in last Sunday’s Mirror, Ross was quoted as saying “my latest war is to begin finding these doctors or physicians assistants who are prescribing far too much pain medication.”

Lees also acknowledged on Monday that on many cases on which he’s worked, the victims initially got addicted to pain medication, then “moved on to something else from there.”

Ross said, “While there are people who truly need that type of medication, there are others taking far more than they should and they’re getting hooked . . . or they end up looking for something cheaper and that leads them to heroin.”

But the numbers for the two counties evoke a question: Why are Cambria’s fatal-overdose numbers so much higher than Blair’s, when the two counties generally mirror one another?

There’s troubling news on the worldwide illegal-drug front that holds the threat of impacts much more terrible than places like Blair and Cambria already are experiencing.

“We’re seeing a whole unknown group of poisons being sold as potent opiate drugs or as heroin substitutes,” James Hall, an epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities in Miami, told the Wall Street Journal in November.

The Journal reported in its Nov. 5-6 edition that the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs estimates that “new psychoactive substances” — a broad list that includes synthetic opioids — are emerging across the world at an average rate of one a week.

For places like Altoona, the main hope, going forward, rests with families identifying the “infiltration” of the drug scourge quickly and responsibly on the home front, then seeking help before calling a coroner becomes necessary.