JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Cambria County tied its all-time fatal overdose mark in 2021, matching a record previously set before a broad-based countywide effort was launched to combat the opioid epidemic.
The county was far from alone. The nation shattered its own record with 107,000 overdose deaths last year, driven by the widespread presence of the deadly opioid fentanyl and the fallout from another pandemic, COVID-19.
Officials in the treatment community across the nation, including the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, started sounding the alarm in the spring of 2020 that the stressful pandemic would isolate people in recovery and increase their chance of relapsing.
Support groups, counselors and other treatment professionals went virtual – and programs in Cambria and Somerset counties and beyond adapted to stay in contact with people in recovery. But the changes to routines and the sometimes isolating effects of quarantining were too much for some, Cambria County Drug Coalition Director Natalie Kauffman said.
“This was a really difficult time for people in recovery, particularly during (shutdowns), when they could no longer be face-to-face with their support systems,” Kauffman said. “It was a devastating blow for a lot of people on their journey.”
The coalition includes like-minded members of the local health, faith, prevention, treatment and support communities. As a group, they have worked to deliver a steady message that all of their resources remain available for those who need help – with or without health insurance – through the Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program.
That includes inpatient “detox” and outpatient support, counseling and 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous.
Services also include medication-assisted treatment that can start from the moment a user enters Conemaugh Health System’s hospitals in Johnstown or Hastings, Kauffman said.
“Throughout this period, none of our programs have gone away,” she said, “and the type of help people need is still available.”
Officials: Other drugs ‘laced’ with fentanyl
Cambria County recorded 94 overdose deaths in 2021 – with 64 involving fentanyl, Cambria County Coroner Jeffrey Lees’ office reported. More than half that number, 48, involved people mixing fentanyl with drugs that produce a far different high, such as cocaine or methamphetamine.
Fentanyl is a drug typically 10 times stronger than heroin.
During a one-month span beginning May 5, 10 people died with a mix of cocaine or meth and fentanyl in their systems. Most were men or women in their 40s to 60s from either northern parts of Cambria County or Greater Johnstown’s East and West Hills, data provided by Lees’ office shows.
By comparison, the same combinations of drugs killed just 24 people in all of 2020.
Law enforcement officials nationwide have tried to raise awareness about the new danger.
It’s a deadly reminder that there are no “safe” drugs, Cambria County District Attorney Gregory Neugebauer said. Fentanyl seems to be finding its way into just about every substance on the streets – with lab tests sometimes even finding it in marijuana, he said.
“From a public health and policy perspective, it’s alarming,” said Neugebauer, who said he’d like to see efforts passed to raise the sentencing guidelines judges can impose on fentanyl dealers. “This is a very dangerous substance.”
That concerns Kauffman, too – for several reasons. While most people understand fentanyl is deadly, cocaine doesn’t have that reputation, despite its own serious risks.
“For whatever reason, from a cultural perspective, cocaine has basically become more recreationally acceptable among people,” she said. “We have to raise awareness that, if you’re using it, the chances that it is laced with an even more powerful drug is extremely high right now.”
Test strip advocates: ‘Need to help people’
The presence of fentanyl can be detected with at-home test strips that were marketed for $20 to $40 per kit through numerous websites this week. But in Pennsylvania, the strips are still considered drug paraphernalia – the possession of which is a crime.
State Rep. Jim Struzzi, an Indiana County Republican, introduced a bill earlier this year to change that, by amending the 1972 Drug Act to enable people to possess the strips as a safety measure for personal use.
State Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Ferndale, is a co-sponsor of the current version, which cleared the House with unanimous support. Since May, the bill has been in the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee for review.
“We need to help people with recovery and returning to normal, productive lives,” Struzzi said. “We can’t do that if they are victims of unintentional overdoses caused by substances unknowingly containing deadly amounts of fentanyl. As the opioid epidemic reaches catastrophic levels in Pennsylvania, we must continue to make laws and policies that work to save lives.”
Kauffmann supports the effort.
“If we can’t eliminate this problem today, at least we can make it safer,” she said.
For one, it gives people not yet ready to seek help a little bit more control over a dangerous situation, Kauffman said. By taking the step to protect themselves from an accidental fentanyl overdose, they are moving toward reclaiming their lives, she added.
“It’s a first step in the right direction,” Kauffman said, “and once they see how prevalent this dangerous drug is… it could be a light-bulb moment.”
If test strips were decriminalized, locations such as Johnstown’s Highlands Health free clinic could start carrying and distributing them, creating an opportunity for someone struggling with the disease to connect with someone in the medical community eager to help them – once they are ready.
“It’s about meeting them where they are,” Kauffman said. “It creates connections – relationships that they can turn to down the road. We’ve seen so many times where someone starts by reaching out for (harm reduction) support and then ends up going for treatment later.”
‘We can’t forget these are human lives’
Lees said that Cambria County’s youngest overdose victim in 2021 was 19 years old. Nine were under the age of 30.
“We can’t forget these are human lives,” he said. “These are family, friends, co-workers and community members. If someone is struggling, we all have to work together to make sure they are getting the help they need, and we have those resources here to educate them and help them recover.”
While the region has made inroads in reducing the stigma about drug addiction, more work needs to be done to educate the public “that this is a disease … and the only way to defeat it is as an entire community,” Kauffman said.
Drug dependency isn’t just a problem for the user. It impacts an individual’s entire family – but she or he doesn’t have to go through it alone, Kauffman said.
“Everyone needs a support system,” she said.
Ongoing efforts are underway to raise awareness about the issue – and the help that is available, including an Aug. 31 event at Peoples Natural Gas Park in Johnstown. The date is recognized as International Overdose Awareness Day.
“We’ve got to address this disease like we do any other dangerous situation,” Kauffman said. “We want people to start recognizing that calling for help is no different than calling the fire department when there’s a fire.”
Cambria County’s Drug and Alcohol Program can be reached at 814-243-9718.