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Patient Care

Western Penn. Overdose Deaths Fall by Nearly 50 Percent

The Tribune-Review, Greensburg

Overdose deaths plummeted across Western Pennsylvania last year, but federal authorities said Friday they would continue working aggressively to further reduce the toll drugs are taking on the region's communities.

"Every person addicted to drugs is a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, a brother or a sister," U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said during a news conference at the Federal Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh. "We will continue to fight for every life."

Drug overdose deaths fell by 47 percent in Allegheny County between 2017 and 2018, while the number was cut in half in both Beaver and Butler counties. Such deaths fell 44 percent in Washington County and 37 percent in Westmoreland County, according to Brady.

Still, hundreds of people died from overdoses. The website Overdose Free PA said Allegheny County reported 390 overdose deaths in 2018, compared with 122 in Westmoreland, 46 in Butler and 41 in Beaver.

Westmoreland County does not report overdose data to the website.

Brady attributed the drop in deaths to aggressive tactics on both the supply side and demand side.

"On the demand side, our health care and treatment community are doing amazing work," he said. "EMTs and first responders have saved thousands of lives."

Medical professionals, he said, are doing a better job of policing themselves and prescribing less.

Brady said his office, the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and state and local police have been attacking the supply side.

More federal prosecutors have been hired to go after medical professionals who illegally prescribe opioids, and they are trying more drug cases in federal court to leverage mandatory sentences.

"Anyone in law enforcement will tell you that mandatory drug sentences are absolutely critical to investigating drug trafficking organizations and cartels," Brady said, adding the sentences can have the "maximum impact on dismantling trafficking organizations."

Bob Jones, special agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh field office, said the drop in overdose deaths isn't a cause for celebration.

Jones said the lives lost across the region "are far too many," and added, "The FBI is committed to reducing that number, month by month, county by county."

State police Troop B Capt. Joseph Ruggery said troopers have taken $66 million worth of drugs off Pennsylvania highways in the past year, including nearly 50 pounds of fentanyl in the last three months of 2018.

Troopers also administered more than 200 doses of the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone in 2018.

Despite the drop in deaths, Brady said, "This is not the time to slow down."

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