Gene Vittone

Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone speaks during a press conference Thursday to announce that the county is on a record pace for the number of drug overdose deaths. Investigators think the surge is caused by lethal amounts of fentanyl being laced in cocaine.

Washington County is on pace to set a record in overdose deaths this year as investigators said they are finding cocaine laced with lethal amounts of fentanyl.

There have been 33 overdose deaths in the county so far this year, according to District Attorney Gene Vittone, including eight to 10 deaths over the past three weeks that are believed to be cocaine users who unknowingly ingested fentanyl.

“This is nothing less than a mass poisoning,” Vittone said during a press conference Thursday to raise alarm bells about the recent spike in overdose deaths. “What they’re getting on the street may not be what they think it is.”

Vittone spoke alongside Washington Drug & Alcohol Commission Executive Director Cheryl Andrews and Erich Curnow, the director of clinical and case management services for the commission, as they tried to make the public aware of the “impending crisis” with lethal drug combinations being sold by dealers.

Investigators are unsure why a narcotic such as fentanyl is being laced in cocaine, which is a stimulant. Curnow said fentanyl continued to be produced and shipped into the country during the pandemic, and there may be an overabundant supply of it that drug dealers are trying to unload through other drugs. He also suspects dealers may either be negligent in mixing them or attempting to get cocaine users addicted to another drug.

“We really have to all work together to stop the rising tide of overdose deaths,” Curnow said. “There is no safe use of any illicit substances.”

Investigators noticed a spike in overdoses in late February and that continued with a surge of hospitalizations during recent weekends. They became concerned when known cocaine users were overdosing, and toxicology tests conducted during autopsies are awaiting results to confirm that fentanyl was the cause of death in several recent cases.

Nearly 100 people died in Washington County from drug overdoses last year, which had been on a downward trend in recent years since setting a record of 106 overdose deaths in 2016. At this time last year, 20 fatal overdoses had been reported, meaning the 33 so far in 2021 represents a 65% increase. There were 36 overdoses deaths in all of 2012, when Vittone formed a special task force to battle the epidemic.

“We’re experiencing yet another type of epidemic that we need to address and stay on top of,” Curnow said.

Many people who are overdosing are doing so while alone – either due to the stigma of drug use or because of the pandemic – and sometimes aren’t found for several days. The pandemic has also been a hindrance to people finding a path to recovery during isolation.

“Recovery is a team effort,” Curnow said. “When people become isolated ... you’re isolating them from resources for wellness.”

Andrews renewed her support for naloxone and said people can get free kits of the overdose-reversing antidote by going to their website at www.wdacinc.org/narcan-request/. While they strongly advised against using illicit street drugs, Curnow and Andrews suggested addicts should use while with another person in the event of an emergency. Using naloxone and calling 911 to save a person’s life will also place them in the county’s system that is able to provide support and resources for recovery from addiction, Andrews said.

“This naloxone is a game-changer,” she said. “But you have to have it ... to administer it.”

Curnow said they also have “anecdotal” evidence that fentanyl may be laced in some marijuana, but no one has overdosed while using that drug. But the larger concern is the lethal mixture being sold on the street as cocaine, some of which has been found to include “pure-grade” fentanyl, Vittone said.

While the overdoses are happening across the county, they are primarily located in Washington and its surrounding communities, along with in Charleroi in the Mon Valley.

“This is new,” he said. “Every person who dies has a connection to our community. We have to stop the death toll now.”

Vittone said he would like to add a full-time detective to his District Attorney’s Drug Task Force. Currently, only the director is a full-time position, and Vittone would like to have more resources to arrest and prosecute drug dealers who peddle lethal substances.

“We work very hard to identify those selling poison in our community,” Vittone said.

People who are struggling with addiction or know someone who is can contact the Washington Drug & Alcohol Commission’s 24/7 support hotline at 833-888-0467 or go online to www.wdacinc.org for more resources.

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