Cumberland County is on pace for a significant decrease in both overdose deaths and emergency calls for overdoses in 2018.
As of Aug. 2, overdose deaths were down nearly 40 percent compared to a year earlier and down roughly 23 percent compared to 2016, according to an analysis of coroner records conducted by The Sentinel.
There were 31 overdose deaths in Cumberland County as of Aug. 2, according to Cumberland County Coroner Charley Hall. Nearly 50 people had died of a drug overdose in the county by the same time last year and nearly 40 deaths were recorded in 2016, according to The Sentinel’s review of coroner records.
If this trend holds, there would be an estimated 50 overdose deaths in the county by the end of the year, the lowest level since 2015. That estimate is based on the current year-to-date count compared to deaths in 2013 through 2017.
For comparison, 84 people died from a drug overdose in the county last year, according to Hall.
“It’s all trending in the right directions,” Cumberland Goodwill EMS Assistant Chief Nathan Harig said.
Harig said his crew has seen a sharp drop in calls for overdoses this year. Cumberland Goodwill EMS used 131 doses of the opioid overdose antidote Naloxone on 75 patients through Aug. 1 in 2017, according to Harig.
The EMS company used less than 70 doses of Naloxone on 45 patients through the same time this year, Harig said.
Naloxone can be used to rule out an overdose in patients who are experiencing symptoms of an overdose. Harig said there is reasonable suspicion that 64 patients in 2017 and 23 patients in 2018 who had Naloxone administered to them were true overdose victims.
“What we’ve been encountering out there has been trending down,” Harig said.
So, why is the drop occurring?
Frankly, it is far too early to know, and if the overdose deaths do drop through the end of the year, it is likely the result of many factors.
In March, the county began an Opioid Intervention Court that targets people with opioid use disorder as they enter the criminal justice systems, and provides access to treatment and services.
Half of the people who died from a drug overdose in Cumberland County last year were actively involved in a criminal justice system at the time of their death and roughly two thirds had recent criminal charges, according to an analysis of court and coroner records conducted by The Sentinel.
Harig said the drop in calls for overdoses began in February and March, which could align with the opening of the court. However, until more information about overdose victims becomes available, it is impossible to tell if those who died this year were involved in the criminal justice system.
Police enforcement could also be contributing to the drop.
Earlier this year, Carlisle Police announced the arrest of 26 people for the sale of drugs as part of a rolling enforcement operation.
That is a significant increase in the number of felony drug arrests filed by the borough department and also coincides with the time frame Harig said his department saw the drop in overdose calls.
However, increased drug law enforcement does not always result in reduced deaths.
A large-scale single-day drug arrest operation in April 2017, which saw nearly 50 people arrested for selling drugs, was followed within a month by a rise in overdose deaths, according to an analysis conducted by The Sentinel.
Other more broad scale efforts include making Naloxone more readily accessible and attempts to make treatment more available to people with substance use disorder. Sadler Health Center in Carlisle recently opened a Suboxone substance abuse program.
It is also possible that the drop seen in Cumberland County is part of a much more universal trend.
Overdose deaths in Franklin County dropped in 2017, deaths were down roughly 17 percent during the first quarter of 2018 in Philadelphia and down significantly through the first half of the year in Lancaster County.
“Everyone’s going to claim credit [for the drop], when in reality we may have just swept the problem someplace else,” Harig said, adding there has been little change in how his department responds to overdose calls.
Even if overdose deaths hold at the current trend, at 50 deaths, 2018 will be above 2015 levels and nearly twice what was seen before the surge in deaths in 2013, according to coroner records.