Photo by Sonja Reis
The Chartiers Center clinic on Broadway Avenue in Stowe.
-BY THE NUMBERS-
By Elizabeth Perry
Though drug overdose deaths have increased again in 2021 in Allegheny County, most local police chiefs have seen decreases in calls that have resulted in deaths since the height of the pandemic.
That seeming decrease could be due to many factors.
“Sometimes with the availability of Narcan, people aren't even calling the police or EMS like they used to, because they administer Narcan, their friend comes back, so we're never really going to know how many overdoses are occurring year by year,” McKees Rocks Police Chief Rick Deliman said.
Dr. Karl Williams, chief medical examiner for Allegheny County, reported July 7 a total of 719 overdose deaths occurred during 2021, accounting for 25 percent of all deaths under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner’s office. The deaths reflect an increase of 30 deaths over the final 2020 number of 689, or 5%. There were 564 overdose deaths in 2019 and 492 overdose deaths in 2018.
Overall, Pennsylvania had a 3% rise in deaths, which means Allegheny County is above the state average. The death toll of overdoses statewide in 2021 was 5,319, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Pennsylvania is among the 10 highest states of opioid use and overdose deaths, according to Overdose Free PA.
Stowe Township has seen the most overdoses in the area over the past several years. Chief Matt Preininger wrote via email there were 24 overdoses in 2019, three of which were fatal. In 2020, those overdose calls jumped to 48, and six resulted in fatalities.
There were 42 calls in 2021, but the same number of deaths. To date, this year there have been 14 overdose calls and two deaths.
Deliman said there were 21 overdoses in 2019 with one probable death. The number of overdoses reported to the police more than doubled the next year with 46 overdoses and seven probable deaths.
In 2021 there were 28 reported overdoses and nothing the police would consider a probable death.
Heroin is more dangerous now than ever because typically the drug is cut with something else, Deliman said. Fentanyl, a synthetic drug, and Carfentanyl, a veterinary tranquilizer which is exponentially more potent than regular fentanyl are being used to adulterate heroin, Deliman said.
“Unfortunately you never know what bag you’re getting – if that could be the one to do you in,” Deliman said.
Coraopolis Police Chief Ronald Denbow said the problem of overdosing has remained steady. His officers responded to 16 overdose calls which resulted in the death of one person. He said Narcan has been valuable in bringing people back around out of an overdose spiral.
“When I first started here the main drug of choice was crack cocaine,” Denbow, who began in the 1990’s, said. Now, the main problem is the synthetic opioid fentanyl, he said.
“Fentanyl is a moneymaker,” Denbow said. “The route to everything in this country is money.”
Denbow said officers aren’t involved in treating someone beyond responding to an initial emergency. People who call the police to save the life of their companion are not arrested, under protections from an act passed in 2014. Prior to that, people had been afraid to call the police, Denbow said.
Denbow said he didn’t know the answer to the problem. He and his department were just going to continue doing what they were doing.
Chief Jeffrey Kennedy, of Carnegie, said there had been more overdoses in 2020, but hadn’t noted a large increase the following year.
In 2020 there were nine deaths, while in 2021 there were three–a marked decrease according to numbers provided by Police Secretary Patricia Reaghard. Unfortunately, there have been two deaths so far this year.
Drug addiction is not new to the area, Kennedy said.
“It’s a problem we’ve had,” Kennedy said.
Many people carry Narcan now and don’t call police if there’s an overdose, so it’s harder to gauge the problem, Crafton Police Chief Mark Sumpter said. In 2020 there were 23 overdoses and three deaths, in 2021 there were 10 overdoses and one death and so far this year there have been seven overdoses and one death, but the year is only half over, Sumpter said.
“I think 2020 was the highest because of Covid,” Sumpter said, then added, “Twenty-twenty was a very bad year.”
Sumpter said if people seeking to treat drug addiction reach out to his office, he refers them to organizations like resolve Crisis Services. The number to call is 1-888-796-8226, and there is a walk-in clinic at 333 N. Braddock Ave., near Wilkinsburg.
In Stowe Township, there is the Chartiers Center Outpatient Clinic at the CASH Club, 827 Broadway Ave.
“Most of the clients we see have mental health and addiction issues,” said Susan Coyle, CEO of Chartiers Center.
Coyle estimated that between 75 and 90% of their clients deal with both mental illness and addiction to drugs or alcohol.
“We definitely see a lot of people self-medicate to tamp down some of their symptoms,” Coyle said.
The system has tried to treat the whole person, rather than focus on one issue with which they’re struggling, Coyle said.
During the pandemic, the clinic in Bridgeville saw an increase of patients, but that was not the case with the clinic on Broadway, Coyle said. In fact, she said the Cash Club clinic slowed down. Intake “waxed and waned” in 2021, but there has been a recent increase in people seeking help, Coyle said.
“The fact that people are now calling us and scheduling is just a good thing,” Coyle said. That means fewer people are going without care, she explained.
The Auberle Family Healing Center, a first-of-its-kind program in the country to take a different approach in addressing families struggling with opioid use by a caregiver resulting in neglect of children according to a press release by the organization opened Aug. 29.
The group offers a range of family services beyond addiction services. The program was designed by a collaboration between Auberle and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, with input from multiple groups including Community Care Behavioral Health, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and UPMC. ACTION-Housing, Inc. renovated an apartment building at 328 Hays Ave., Mt. Oliver, to house the program, according to their press release. For info, (412) 673-5800.
There is also help available from the state. For information, support, or help with substance use, you can call (412)325-7550 or PA Get Help Now at 1-800-662-HELP. Residents can also go to Pathway to Care and Recovery 365 days a year, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week for help. The facility is located at 326 Third Ave., downtown Pittsburgh and is available for anyone who has challenges around alcohol and/or other drugs and wants information, help or support.