Skip Navigation

Top stories of 2017: The opioid crisis is getting worse


Two county coroners say 2017 is the second year that synthetic opioids have eclipsed heroin as a cause of overdose death.

It used to be called the heroin crisis. But in recent years, heroin has become only one stop on the road of opioid addiction.

Eighty percent of the time, that road begins with prescription drug use, and increasingly, that road ends when a user turns to cheap, synthetic opioids like fentanyl — drugs more lethal than heroin.

Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick says fentanyl has caused deaths to soar. “Six, seven years ago I didn’t see that much fentanyl, and people weren’t cutting the heroin with fentanyl. Today, they’re not only cutting it with fentanyl, they’re just selling straight fentanyl. It’s a very bad thing.”

As of late December, his office has confirmed over 90 deaths, the most he’s ever seen in a year. Hetrick expects to confirm 115 overdose deaths by year’s end, an increase from 2016.

In neighboring York County, coroner Pam Gay says the final tally will be around 130 deaths — almost twice what York County saw in 2016.

Gay says it’s the second year she’s seen where fentanyl and similar synthetic drugs have caused more deaths than heroin.

Hetrick also expects 2017 to end up being the worst year in Pennsylvania history for drug overdose deaths. That means it will top the 2016 state record of 4,642. Pennsylvania isn’t alone. In 2016, over 64,000 people died of drug overdoses nationwide, which several writers have pointed out exceeds the 58,000 U.S. servicemember deaths during the Vietnam War.

Those deaths are tearing families apart, as children are left without parents, and parents without children. Julia Dunn runs Olivia’s House in York County, which helps children deal with grief and loss. She says they have never been busier. “We get five to 10 phone calls a day… 75 percent lost someone to drugs.”

As deaths mount, some want pharmaceutical companies to pay part of the cost. Four Pennsylvania counties have sued the companies that make drugs like Oxycontin and Percocet.

York County district attorney-elect Dave Sunday says, companies deliberately failed to warn people how addictive their products are. “My hope is that this lawsuit will at least mitigate the financial impact on our community and put a stop to these deceptive business practices that are affecting every York Countian and decimating our community.”

Meanwhile the state has issued a standing order allowing people to get naloxone, a drug that can save someone who has an overdose.

And despite everyone’s efforts, experts say 2018 is likely to be, like the year before it, the worst year on record for overdose deaths.

Brett Sholtis
Brett Sholtis

Brett Sholtis was a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health until early 2023. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.

Read more by Brett Sholtis