In the past week, three people have died in Allegheny County from opioid overdoses.
U.S. Attorney David Hickton said Wednesday there were 15 non-fatal overdoses in Cambria County since Monday and at least a dozen non-fatal overdoses in Washington County since the weekend.
Hickton, the western Pennsylvania federal prosecutor, said law enforcement agencies are now treating every overdose as a criminal investigation.
The FBI is compiling information with the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police on overdose incidents at a center in Cranberry Township. Hickton said this will aid in more rapid responses to overdoses.
Hickton said law enforcement has to understand the grip opioids have on addicts. He called it a hijack of the brain, where the user thinks they need the drug to breathe, eat or sleep.
“We need to approach this problem with that stark realization that a person who is addicted to opioids may not care about those consequences, because they are moving so fast towards their next dose of the drug,” he said.
Heroin bags retrieved from recent overdoses tested positive for Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid dealers use to increase potency, which also can increase the risk of overdose. In Washington County, those labels include Black Boot, Boot Camp and Peace of Mind. In Cambria County, risky labels include Bullet Proof and Head Trauma.
Hickton said his office is working with the University of Pittsburgh’s website, overdosefreepa.pitt.edu to upload names of labels that have led to overdose.
“Frankly, it doesn’t help our investigations, but we think the balance weighs in favor of the public health concern. We are urging people who are addicted, and families of people who are addicted, that this is the moment you need to get help,” he said.
Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehab, said he has watched opioid addiction evolve since the mid-'90s, when often an overdose death would be labeled differently to avoid the stigma associated with addiction.
He said reporting is now more accurate.
“We do need the information to understand and put the resources behind, to prevent this from growing and to reverse it hopefully,” he said.
Capretto echoed Hickton and said opioid addiction is not something that can be treated with incarceration.
“Your brain is hijacked,” he said. “Once addiction develops to that point, you really need help to get out of it.”
Hickton said a majority of the recent overdose victims were revived by paramedics and police officers using the anti-opioid drug, Narcan.
He said suspects surrounding the recent overdoses have been identified in both Cambria and Washington counties.