RIDGWAY — Overdose deaths in Elk County more than doubled between 2016 and 2017.
And two more are on the books already, just two weeks into 2018, according to Elk County Coroner Michelle A. Muccio.
Of the 92 deaths she investigated in 2017, there were six drug overdoses, three of which were combinations of fentanyl and heroin.
There was also one homicide last year, which was a drug delivery resulting in death. It also involved fentanyl.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent, which is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery. However, now that it has increased in popularity among drug users, Muccio said it is formulated by drug dealers in clandestine labs.
And the Elk County numbers don’t necessarily portray the true depth of the problem.
Muccio said she knows of three other overdose deaths, which are not counted in the Elk County numbers, because the patients were transported to out of area facilities where they ultimately died.
“Even though it’s only six (overdose deaths), it’s twice as much as last year, which means something in a small county like this,” Muccio said.
By comparison, in 2015, there were four drug overdoses and three in 2016. None of them involved fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is interesting. It’s mixed in with the heroin. So a lot of times people intend to use heroin and they don’t realize it has the fentanyl in it. Other times they’re seeking out the fentanyl. What they don’t realize is that when their drug dealer is manufacturing their drugs, he’s not adequately measuring to make sure there isn’t enough fentanyl in there that he doesn’t kill anybody,” Muccio said.
“As little as three grains of sand of fentanyl can kill someone,” Muccio said. “When we send our toxicology reports in we see that a level of three can kill you, the last four (deaths) have (had scores of) 58, 67, and some 150. That is literally enough fentanyl to kill 30 to 40 people.”
While the numbers themselves are staggering, Muccio said the potency of the drug also raises concerns for first responders and those in the coroner’s office as fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin and trace amounts can be deadly for people with no opioid tolerance.
To combat that fear, the coroner’s office is constantly reading up on information and precautions to keep prepared and safe, but the threat still looms.
“It is shocking to hear that and it’s sad,” Commissioner Matt Quesenberry said after Muccio’s presentation Tuesday.