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FOX43 Reveals: What may be behind a sharp rise in drug overdose deaths

Coroners are reporting a steady increase of drug-related deaths. FOX43 Reveals how the COVID-19 pandemic may not be the only reason behind the spike.

YORK COUNTY, Pa. — The opioid crisis is taking more lives than ever before and it’s playing out against the backdrop of a raging pandemic. Though data from 2020 is still being finalized, it is on track to be the deadliest year for drug overdose deaths in the U.S.

For a few years, it seemed Pennsylvania was gaining a foothold over the opioid epidemic. However, coroners started to see record numbers of drug-related deaths in 2020. FOX43 Reveals why the COVID-19 pandemic may not be the only reason behind the spike.

Drug overdose deaths in York County increased so much, the Coroner’s Office considered looking into refrigerated morgue space.

At one point, Mistry Dorwart was heading in that direction.

Rachel Yonkunas: How long had you struggled with substance use disorder?

Misty Dorwart: For over 20 years.

After her first and only overdose, Dorwart was incarcerated and ordered to attend long-term treatment in Cumberland County. She said that is what finally helped her get clean and Dorwart is coming up on a major milestone. July will mark three years in recovery.

Dorwart is now a Pennsylvania Certified Recovery Specialist. She works in the Warm Handoff program at Just For Today (JFT) Recovery and Veteran’s Support Services in Lemoyne, Cumberland County. The organization is one of a few places still offering in-person meetings, which are a critical lifeline for people in recovery.

“A lot of places that would normally be able to help get you into recovery, they don’t have money right now because they haven’t been able to do the fundraisers. And people aren’t making the money that they used to, to be able to donate, so it’s devastating all around,” Dorwart explained.

Since the pandemic, coroners have seen record numbers of drug-related deaths. York County saw the most drug overdose deaths in 2020 than in any other year on record. Coroner Pam Gay said they had 185 drug overdose deaths, with the causes of 19 other cases still pending.

Coroner Gay: Over the last few weeks especially, there’s been a lot of concern because we’re at capacity or overflowing in that morgue. So your mind goes in a lot of different directions as to what you can do.

Rachel Yonkunas: When you started to see the number rise, just seeing one after another, what did you think?

Coroner Gay: We realized that our epidemic is obviously still very much real and here.

The pandemic may be only one element of the problem. FOX43 Reveals looked into numbers from the Lancaster County Coroner’s Office. The county had 145 drug overdose deaths in 2020—the first spike in three years. Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni said 76 percent of the deaths were caused by fentanyl.

Dr. Diamantoni: Sometimes people may be purchasing drugs on the street and they believe that they’re getting pure heroin and they’re getting pure fentanyl and dying as a result of that.

Rachel Yonkunas: Can you tell if any of these deaths were in people using fentanyl for the first time?

Dr. Diamantoni: We really can’t, but if someone uses fentanyl and that’s the first narcotic they’ve ever used, the likelihood that they die and stop breathing as a result of taking fentanyl is very, very high.

To get a bigger picture, FOX43 Reveals analyzed data from the CDC on drug overdose death rates in every state. By 2018, Pennsylvania was the fourth deadliest state for drug overdoses, with more than five times as many overdose deaths as homicides.

Now that the numbers are inching back up, recovery support advocates said raising awareness is critical. Though many recovery support groups moved meetings online or shut down their services indefinitely, there are still places like JFT Recovery—and people like Dorwart, who hope to guide others down a path they now know.

“One of the first things I tell people is ‘I’m proud of you’ because a lot of times when we’re in our depths of our addiction, we feel bad about ourselves,” Dorwart said. “Nobody around us says they’re proud of you and sometimes just those few words are that encouragement to make someone feel good to keep going.”

If you are someone you know needs help, here are resources that can help.

PRO•A was established in 1998 to give a voice and focal point to the statewide recovery community in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs has a number of resources, including the Get Help Now Hotline (1-800-662-HELP). It is a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year treatment referral service staffed by trained professionals who will stay on the phone with the caller until a treatment provider with an opening is identified. In addition to the hotline, text (717-216-0905) options are available. 

The York Opioid Collaborative (YOC) seeks to reduce opioid addiction and deaths in York County, while creating an environment that promotes and supports recovery for those with substance use disorder and their families. 

Lancaster County Joining Forces is a collection of organizations and individuals who want to save lives and help our neighbors who are struggling with addiction. 

Just For Today Recovery and Veteran's Support Services aims to provide safe, structured, and compassionate housing for those seeking recovery, as well as providing addiction education and advocacy for the recovery community in Central Pennsylvania. 

On January 26, The Wolf Administration highlighted the latest accomplishments of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) and provided an update on prescribing and overdose trends up to October 2020. 

FOX43 Reveals issues that affect you and your family to keep you informed. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send us a confidential email at FOX43reveals@FOX43.com.

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