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Opioid Deaths In Allegheny County Declined Last Year, Though Public Officials Can't Say Why

Allegheny County Health Department
The Allegheny County Health Department says there were as many as 470 opioid-related, fatal overdoses in 2018. Toxicology for 80 cases are still pending. In 2017, 737 overdoses occurred. This is a potential 36 percent decrease from 2017 to 2018.

Fewer Allegheny County residents are dying from opioid-related overdoses. 

Preliminary data from the county medical examiner show the number of opioid-related fatalities fell by at least 36 percent in 2018, compared to 2017.

This trend began in 2017. Paradoxically, 2017 had a record number of opioid-related deaths, but the rate of fatal overdoses declined throughout the year.

The county data seems to be following national trends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from July 2017 to July 2018 there was a 3.1 percent decline, nationwide, in overdose deaths related to all drugs.  

It's not clear what's behind this decline, as the data only shows that fewer people are dying. But public health workers say the reasons fewer Allegheny County residents are dying is likely due to a combination of factors, top of the list being robust efforts to widely distribute naloxone, the medication that revives someone from an opioid overdose.

The county jail and hospital emergency rooms now give people naloxone when they are released. And organizations like the Goodwill, YMCA and public libraries are training staff on how to administer the medications.

Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker said if naloxone is really making the difference, it’s important to remember those supplies -- and funding them for them -- are limited.

"We worry that there could be a time when we don’t have as much of it available,” Hacker said.

Other factors leading to this decline in opioid-related fatalities might include the impact of the state's prescription drug monitoring program. But experts say it’s unlikely that more people are entering addiction treatment and have stopped using opioids.

“I don’t get that sense from our setting … we don’t necessarily see reduction in opioid use,” said Aaron Arnold, director of Prevention Point Pittsburgh, an organization that distributes naloxone, sterile needles and helps drug users access services, like addiction treatment.

“I think that main contributing factor … is that we’re finally getting naloxone deployed widely enough that it’s reaching a saturation point,” said Arnold. “[And] I think people are developing a tolerance.”

County health director Karen Hacker said, whatever the reason for this decline in fatalities, it’s too soon to claim success.

“We are very excited that obviously that we’ve seen fewer people die this last year,” she said. “But we can’t take our foot off the gas pedal on this one.”

Hacker said final 2018 data should be released this spring.

*This story was updated on March 8 at 11:48 am.