After years of battling a seemingly unending heroin epidemic, Fentanyl has taken over as the area’s drug-of-choice and experts find that many overdose victims have such a range of drugs in their system it’s often unclear which one killed them.
Fifty times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than hospital opiates, Fentanyl is responsible for over half of the overdose deaths this year.
It attacks without warning and kills its victims so fast that first responders often find the needle still in their arm, according to Lycoming County Coroner Charles Kiessling Jr.
Kiessling’s 20-year run as coroner has brought him face to face with every category of death, but he remembers when the county would face no more than two or three overdose deaths a year.
“In 20 years this is one of the biggest problems that we’ve had,” Kiessling said. “It doesn’t seem to be going away.”
In 2019 overdose deaths have reached 38, tying it with 2017’s record-breaking tally. While the county saw a brief respite in 2018, at just 27 overdose deaths, 20 of those deaths were due to Fentanyl – a synthetic opioid only sold on the street and meant to enhance the effect of heroin or morphine.
Getting a stronger high
As addiction rates grew, so did the search for a strong high.
Shay Madden, executive director at West Branch Drug and Alcohol, has been helping people who struggle with drug abuse for years.
For her clients, the search for a stronger high means mixing prescription and street drugs, often meaning that the addicts don’t know what is in what they are taking.
“People do not know what they are using,” Madden said, adding that many go in search of Fentanyl because it’s cheaper and easier to get.
A nightmare two-week stretch in 2017 saw over 50 overdoses rack the county. It was blamed on a bad batch of heroin, but while it should be seen as a cautionary tail, instead many addicts went looking for the very batch that took so many lives and sent many more to the hospital.
It’s hard “when you have a rash of overdoses and want people to be informed, but then people will seek out that specific drug,” Madden said.
As Kiessling looks through reports of this year’s deaths, he finds that some have as high as 13 drugs in their system, ranging from marijuana to prescription drugs to morphine or Fentynal.
This is an all-too-common trend with drug users, Kiessling said, adding that it often makes it impossible to prosecute after an overdose death as doctors are unable to say which drug was actually responsible for the death.
Naloxone – Not a ‘magic drug‘
State Surgeon General Dr. Rachel Levine’s standing order for Naloxone has provided a way to reverse many overdoses in the state, but Kiessling cautioned thinking of it as a wonder drug.
As heroin begins to subside and prescription drugs and Fentanyl take its place, Naloxone’s effectiveness drastically declined.
It’s ineffective on prescription overdoses and often not strong enough to combat the strength of Fentanyl, Kiessling side.
“People will think they have this magic drug in their pocket that they can use.”
But even paramedics don’t carry enough Naloxone to reverse Fentanyl, Kiessling added.
Lycoming County’s drugs through the years
In 2005, a community survey showed that 11% of residents thought drugs and alcohol were an important issue and 17.3% saw crime and gangs as a major problem. Surveyed again in 2018, the percentage of the community who saw drugs and alcohol as a major problem rose to 58% and those who thought crime was a major problem dropped to 7%.
Despite the continual rise in overdose deaths, Williamsport Bureau of Police Chief Damon Hagan has seen the crime and drug epidemic rise and fall over the years.
Declining to comment on the current state of dealing in the city, Hagan said one of the worst gang-related crime era’s in the city was in 2005 when a sect of the popular street gang The Bloods – Sex, Money Murder – were prominant in the city.
Since then he’s seen streams of drugs come in from “non-traditional” groups out of Philadelphia, often dressed in every-day clothes and very organized.
“We’ve seen three man groups be more effective than 10-man groups and 10-man groups be more effective than three-man groups,” he said. “We’ve seen it all.”
The most effective group is the one that is harder to detect – “generally experience plays out.”
“The level of organization has varied overtime,” Hagan said. “It really depends on who’s out of jail.”
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