Meanwhile, overdose death numbers in Bucks County have continued to climb.
By Christian Menno
The battle against opioid addiction can seem like an unwinnable war to those on the front lines.
So any bit of tangible progress, no matter how slight, tends to be trumpeted.
While a 4-percent decrease in accidental overdose deaths in the first half of 2017 compared to that same time period last year — 111 deaths, versus 116 in 2016 — might not seem significant, Montgomery County officials are using it as motivation to push forward.
“After years of watching these numbers increase, we are proud of the work being done to combat the opioid epidemic that is having a devastating toll in the region,” said Montgomery County Commissioners Chairwoman Val Arkoosh in a statement announcing the decease.
In recognizing the dip in fatal overdoses — which includes six consecutive quarters without a large increase in drug deaths in Montgomery County — Arkoosh also acknowledged the immense amount of work still to be done.
“This is not a victory lap but a chance to recognize the impact of the men and women across Montgomery County who work in law enforcement, EMS and human services to save the lives of those battling substance use disorder," she said.
So what’s contributing to the progress?
Montgomery County officials say it’s in part due to the increased availability of naloxone, an anti-overdose medication packaged under the brand name Narcan.
In both Bucks and Montgomery counties, doses of Narcan are carried by police and EMS personnel, available at health clinics and frequently distributed to the public, along with training on how to use it, at addiction resource events.
The data, according to Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Michael Milbourne, is a clear indicator that further regulation and oversight on prescription opioids is needed.
Officials in both Montgomery and Bucks counties are putting pressure on the source of mass-produced painkillers.
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele stood behind Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro last month when Shapiro announced that his office had issued subpoenas to several pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors.
“Everyone in law enforcement is committed to stopping this flow of poison,” Steele said this week. “Each person who has died from a drug overdose is one too many.”
In August, Steele’s counterpart in Bucks County, Matthew Weintraub, joined officials in Bensalem as they announced plans to bring legal action against multiple pharmaceutical companies they say have claimed their medications are safe for chronic pain relief — but have only served to contribute to the crisis. Weintraub has also said his office is conferring with the district attorney in Delaware County, which has filed its own legal action against drug companies.
Unlike in Montgomery County, in Bucks, the overdose death numbers have continued to climb.
Bucks County Coroner Dr. Joseph Campbell recently reported 117 drug deaths in Bucks County in the first half of 2017. While a comparable number for the first six months of 2016 wasn't available, the county reported 168 such deaths for the entire year.
Fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid, is the main killer in both counties, officials reiterated.
On top of the 111 accidental drug deaths in Montgomery County, officials said there were 12 more drug-related fatalities that were deemed a result of suicide or remain undetermined. Of those 123 deaths, 89 involved fentanyl.
The opioid was present in the systems of 74 percent of people who died as a result of drugs in Bucks County during the same period — a spike of 44 percent compared to 2016.
Montgomery County recently received federal designation as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), which allowed it to become a part of a regional resource and intelligence sharing network along with Chester, Delaware and Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania, Camden County in New Jersey and New Castle County in Delaware.
Weintraub said Bucks County hopes to join the group in the near future.
Drug busts will continue to be a factor in falling overdose numbers, officials said.
Earlier this month, Weintraub highlighted the efforts of police in Bensalem who seized six kilograms of raw heroin worth about $4 million on the street. The bust, he said, was “far from the beginning, and far from the end.”
Montgomery County had a sizeable seizure of its own in October when one kilogram of fentanyl, containing up to 500,000 fatal doses, was recovered following a lengthy investigation. Steele said at the time it was enough fentanyl to kill half the county's population.