Cambria County Coroner Jeffrey Lees said on Friday that a man died last month in Cambria County of an overdose of carfentanil, a synthetic opioid so potent that veterinarians use it to tranquilize elephants and other large animals.
Toxicology tests revealed that a 43-year-old man who died on Dec. 27 in Jackson Township succumbed to an overdose of carfentanil, Lees said during a press conference he hosted on Friday morning. The death was Cambria County’s first known fatal carfentanil overdose, the coroner said.
Dr. Matthew Perry, regional medical director of emergency medicine at Conemaugh Health System, said during Friday’s press conference that carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine, 5,000 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
“Many times,” Perry said, “folks that are using will overdose prior to the end of the administration of the dose that they’re attempting to give themselves. It’s extremely dangerous. Just by touching a patient, being around a patient, those involved can be affected as well.”
There have been a handful of carfentanil overdose deaths in other regional counties in the past few years, Lees said. Bedford County had a carfentanil-related overdose death in the summer of 2017; at the time, Bedford County Coroner Rusty Styer said it was the first time authorities had discovered the presence of carfentanil in the region.
Dr. Lauren Huddle, a forensic pathologist at ForensicDx in Windber, said on Friday that her office has handled four fatal carfentanil overdoses in the past two years, including the death discussed during Friday’s press conference. Jackson Township police are now investigating that death, Lees said.
Lees said that he organized Friday’s press conference in order to raise awareness of the danger carfentanil can pose to emergency responders and members of the public.
“I feel … the need to make the public aware of this dangerous drug being here in Cambria County,” he said.
Robbin Melnyk, Cambria County 911 coordinator, said her office and Lees’ office are forwarding information to county emergency responders on how to handle situations that may involve carfentanil.
“The responders have already been trained and have received information previously, so this is just a reminder,” she said. “We want them to review that information and just be on guard.”
“The big thing is that first responders at scenes be aware of the symptoms of possible opioid exposure,” Huddle added, “and, if anyone exhibits those symptoms, they need to then receive (the overdose reversal drug) Narcan – and then follow it up by going to the hospital, because the Narcan will eventually wear off, and then the carfentanil symptoms can come back after that.”
Melnyk said that 911 dispatchers need the help of callers to safely handle situations that could involve carfentanil or other dangerous drugs.
“What we would like to ask is that any (911) caller who is faced with a situation like this … share any information describing what they see at the scene to the dispatcher,” she said. “Dispatchers use protocols to process calls that generate questions and instructions, and if there is a danger present at the scene, we can ensure that the right instructions are provided to that caller (and) that the correct resources are dispatched to the scene.”
“A report or an indication that there’s a possible safety concern is not going to prevent responders from coming. It’s not going to delay a response. … They’re going to come in, but they’re going to be prepared and wearing the right protection when they enter the residence.”
Perry said that others, including hospital employees and anybody else who may come in contact with an overdose patient, should also stay alert.
“We need to stay diligent and vigilant – as pre-hospital providers, bystanders, ER staff, anybody that may come in contact with the patient – to use universal precautions, wear gloves, have N95 masks available, because anybody can be affected,” Perry said. “Along those same lines, be prepared to take care of other people that are on scene, other than the patient.”