Fentanyl deaths outranked those attributed to heroin last year for the first time in Allegheny County, according to data released Thursday by the medical examiner's office.
Coroners and medical examiners in all but one of the 10-county region reported spikes in drug overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016 -- up 44 percent in Allegheny County and 38 percent in Westmoreland County.
Data show 613 people died from overdoses. Karl Williams, Allegheny County Medical Examiner, said opioids were present in three quarters of them -- usually heroin, fentanyl or both. Williams said he doesn't believe this number will decrease.
“There’s no indication yet of any leveling off. I believe that we will continue to see the prominence of fentanyl as opposed to heroin," said Williams. "I think it’s easier to produce so it’s going to continue to replace heroin.
Fentanyl is a highly addictive narcotic used for pain relief. It's similar to morphine, but estimated to be 50 to 100 times more potent. When combined with alcohol, heroin or other drugs, it can cause severe respiratory distress and death.
Karen Hacker, the director of the county’s health department, said Thursday the drug has become more readily available in the last year.
“The demand for it has increased substantially,” she said. “Obviously the amount of fentanyl is not something that any individual taking the drug would necessarily know. We do feel this is contributing to the increase in overdoses.”
People addicted to heroin seek a more potent high and think their bodies have a stronger tolerance to fentanyl than they can actually handle, Hacker said.
“We do see that scenario with heroin users, that they hear about something more powerful or strong and they are drawn to it, not pushed away,” she said.
Most deaths in southwestern Pennsylvania counties were attributed to heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and other prescription drugs.
“At this point in time, we want to assume that all heroin has fentanyl in it,” she said.
She said county and state agencies are “acutely aware” of the epidemic and have implemented evidence-based practices. That includes legislative policies, interventions with the doctors who prescribe narcotics and in-school education "to keep people from getting involved in these drugs in the first place." They're also seeking better treatment options, she said, some with medication, counseling and support.
"To really help individuals who are in trouble get themselves and their lives back on track,” she said.