Fentanyl-Related Overdose Deaths on the Rise

JEFFERSON CO., Pa. (EYT) – As overdose death rates spike across the nation, our area is not an exception to a particularly frightening trend involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Preliminary data released in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that drug overdose deaths in the United States rose by approximately 29.4% in 2020 to an estimated 93,331 deaths, including 69,710 cases involving opioids.

Even prior to the increase that came about during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 70,630 drug-involved overdose deaths reported in the U.S. in 2019, according to the CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics, with the main driver being synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl.

CDC statistics show that deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl have increased nearly 14-fold from 2012 to 2019.

Locally, while overdose deaths did not appear to spike sharply in recent years, the number of deaths related to fentanyl as opposed to other drugs has increased, according to local officials.

Jefferson County Coroner Brenda Shumaker told exploreJeffersonPA.com that cases of fentanyl mixed with other drugs have begun to make up a majority of their overdose cases.

“We have definitely seen a marked increase in fentanyl-related deaths,” Shumaker said.

Jefferson County rarely sees fentanyl alone in a toxicology report. As in most cases, it is combined with heroin or methamphetamine, Shumaker continued.

She noted they had one case in Brookville that involved a “huge” dose of fentanyl that led to a death.

In neighboring Clarion County, Coroner Dan Shingledecker echoed Shumaker’s comments.

“Pretty much any drug death I’ve been in contact with over the last couple of years has involved fentanyl,” Shingledecker said.

“Fentanyl is a very powerful drug, and I think sometimes people don’t know what they’re getting. They may think they’re getting heroin, but end up getting something even stronger and more dangerous.”

Venango County Coroner Christina Rugh noted the same trend.

“What we’re seeing in the last couple of months is that people are buying illicit drugs, cocaine or heroin, and what they’re getting is almost pure fentanyl or another synthetic like fentanyl,” Rugh explained.

According to Forest County Coroner Norman Wimer, although overdose statistics for Forest County remain very low, the problem exists as much in Forest County as in the rest of the region.

“Our situation is a little different because if we have someone who overdoses here and is transported by ambulance to a hospital, then they’re not our (Forest County’s) case anymore because we don’t have a hospital here. That skews our statistics,” Wimer said.

“My take has always been that we are trending the same way as the surrounding counties. It’s just that our numbers get skewed by that lack of a hospital.”

The total number of overdoses over the last few years in the area has trended slightly upward in Clarion and Jefferson Counties and slightly down in Venango County.


County 2016- 2017- 2018- 2019-
Clarion 5 7 11 9
Forest 0 0 0 2
Venango 12 10 10 9
Jefferson 10 9 12 13


However, while the official numbers from 2020 are not yet available, the numbers provided by local officials from the first half of 2021 are discouraging.

Shingledecker reported that as of the first week of August, there were already four confirmed overdose deaths in Clarion County with another three investigations pending. He added that toxicology reports can take several weeks to be processed and returned.

In Venango County, Rugh noted they have nine confirmed overdose deaths so far this year with another three investigations still pending.

Shumaker said Jefferson County has had a dozen confirmed overdose deaths as of the first week of August, with several confirmed to involve fentanyl.

“It’s really very dangerous, and when you look at the number of overdoses, regardless of the agent involved, you have to remember for every overdose death, there are probably five or six other people who came really close,” Shumaker added.

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