The number of deaths in Lebanon County investigated by the coroner’s office in 2022 was down over the previous two years because the number of COVID-related deaths declined. 

That’s a sign that life is returning to “normal,”  according to Lebanon County coroner Dr. Jeffrey Yocum, who presented the coroner’s office annual report to county commissioners on Thursday, Feb. 16.

“This year, COVID pretty well – coroner-wise – is pretty well non-existent. The hospital now is not reporting any COVID deaths to us because they’re rarely few and far between,” said Yocum. “So, we’re getting back to normal this year with COVID deaths and we’re getting back to the normal (number of) deaths we’ve had throughout the years.”

Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz told Yocum that’s not the information she’s been reading in the press, noting that Pennsylvania is experiencing about 100 deaths a day across the commonwealth. 

Yocum’s response to Litz’s comment was, “Not in Lebanon County.” (According to state data, Lebanon County is still seeing a handful of COVID-related deaths monthly.)

Yocum said his office investigated 376 deaths in 2022, of which 307 were of natural causes. Additionally, there were 45 accidental deaths (29 drug-related), 20 suicides, and three homicides.

To demonstrate the impact COVID had on the coroner’s office, Yocum said in 2019 – the year before COVID struck in March 2020 – there were 329 deaths his office investigated that year. In 2020, that figure jumped to 526 cases and was 498 in 2021. 

“Now we’re getting back – as I said this year, 376 cases, going back to a normal year, 2019, (there were) 329,” said Yocum. “So as you can see, the numbers are up but not as they were with COVID.”

Trend-wise, Yocum said he believes the number of deaths his office investigates in Lebanon County moving forward will continue to be high.

“I think we’re going to see these pretty high numbers,” he said. “The baby boomer generation is coming of age now, so I think we’re going to see more natural deaths that we’re going to be investigating.”

In turning the presentation over to Jim Donmoyer, executive director of the Lebanon County Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Yocum said that agency has good news to report on the number of overdose deaths in 2022 compared to previous years.

The county’s number over the past three years has continued to drop compared to 2020 when 39 ODs were reported – the most ever in Lebanon County, according to Donmoyer. He said there were 31 in 2021, a decrease of 20 percent, and 29 in 2022, a drop of 6.4 percent.

“Since 2020, we’ve decreased the overdose deaths in Lebanon County by about 27 percent,” added Donmoyer.  

The 2022 OD demographics were: 18 males and 11 females, of which 22 were white, six were Latino, and one whose nationality is unknown. Average age was 44.5 years with the oldest person being 84 years old and the youngest at 19, according to Donmoyer.

Geographically: The south portion of the city and southern half of the county had 13 deaths; the northern part of the city and county had 11 OD deaths; Palmyra, 3; and Myerstown, 1. No OD deaths were reported in any other county municipality, which Donmoyer said was a change from last year when at least one death occurred in the various municipalities that are tracked by zip code.

Donmoyer noted that fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that’s used legally to treat severe pain,  usually in cancer patients – was the main culprit in OD deaths in Lebanon County, adding it was present in 16 of the 29 deaths. 

“It’s mixology, the mixture of fentanyl with other drugs,” said Donmoyer. “Marijuana mixed with fentanyl, heroin mixed with fentanyl. I looked back and it was 80 percent of the deaths last year compared to 60 percent this year.”

Yocum, who said his certification is in addiction medicine, noted the substances found within illegal drugs are different today than in the past.

“Marijuana, years ago, when you bought marijuana, you smoked a joint, no problem,” he said. “You’re smoking marijuana today, you don’t know what that marijuana has been dipped in. We’ve had several deaths through the past couple of years of people smoking marijuana who died of fentanyl.”

Donmoyer added that the same is true with vape products, saying they can also be laced with fentanyl.

Litz asked Donmoyer if legal, state-backed dispensaries ensure that marijuana is free of fentanyl.

“Yes, I’ve heard people that I’ve dealt with in our office who use drugs and get drugs on the street, that are now turning to the dispensaries because they know the street drugs are dangerous, and they’re not getting what they think they are getting,” said Donmoyer. “People are starting to take the attitude that ‘I’ll get my card and get my drugs there and not on the street.'”

When asked how the advent of state-sponsored dispensaries has impacted fentanyl deaths, Yocum said it could be a reason for fewer deaths, but added there are a lot of reasons why the numbers of fentanyl-related deaths are down. 

Donmoyer said Narcan – which is a life-saving drug used in people who have suffered an overdose – has definitely contributed to the decline in OD-related deaths over the past few years. Donmoyer added that Narcan kits are distributed by the state to his office and then provided to whomever wants them – including all Lebanon County school districts.

Read More: Stronger Together task force to distribute Narcan at training events this spring

Concerning Narcan kit distribution, Donmoyer said the total rate rose in 2022 by 188 units over 2021’s total number of 844.

“Last year, we distributed 84 cases, which comes out to be 1,032 kits across the county,” he said. “I think that has something to do with the numbers going down.”

Donmoyer said another tool coming soon to his arsenal in the fight against accidental OD deaths are fentanyl test strips. The strips are designed to inform a user whether fentanyl is present in the drug they are about to consume. 

“My office will be able to distribute fentanyl test strips which, previously, were against the law because they were paraphernalia,” said Donmoyer. “Legislators just reversed that, 200 to 1, and now they don’t consider it paraphernalia. I will have them in our office and provide those to anybody who wants them.”

Holly Leahy, administrator for Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention (MH/ID/EI), said of the 20 suicides, the two highest causes were by gunshot (12) and overdose (five). Demographically, eight of the 20 deaths were females – a figure that has risen in recent years. She noted a rise in the methodology of female suicide deaths being related to gunshot. 

“It used to be the main demographic was white, middle-aged men who committed suicide by gunshot,” Leahy said. “But that’s not the case anymore.”

In addition to death calls, the coroner’s office also responded to 855 cremations in 2022. Before an individual is cremated, funeral homes must document through the coroner’s office how that person passed to ensure that death is not suspicious.

On a separate matter involving the coroner’s office, Litz asked Yocum if all autopsy records had been filed with the prothonotary’s office, as required by state law. 

“Every one of my records is in their office, from the time I took office, correct,” said Yocum, who is currently in his seventh four-year term as county coroner. 

When Litz asked when they had arrived, he replied, “It has been happening over the past several months.”

In other county business, Leahy presented and the commissioners approved eight provider contract amendments for fiscal year 2022-23 for MH/ID/EI services. The contract amendments totaled $79,537 and are covered by existing block grant funding, meaning no additional county funds are required to cover these expenditures.

The commissioners also approved a three-year VOCA grant for the Office of the District Attorney in the amount of $123,493 for the first year of the grant. Although it’s a three-year grant cycle, the request approved by the commissioners contains the ability to amend the amount in years 2 and 3 since there are budget uncertainties within the commonwealth for those contracted years.

This grant, which runs Oct. 1, 2023, through Sept. 30, 2025, covers direct services provided to crime victims and witnesses of crime. 

In another item presented by the DA’s office, the commissioners agreed to sign a RASA/VOJO 2023-24 grant award notification form from the state for $235,636. Of that total, $172,766 is earmarked for adult victim services through the RASA program while $62,869 is designated for youth crime victim services via the VOJO program.

The supervisors also: 

  • Approved a change order in the amount of $2,461 to add sheet metal to the air conditioning units and to install an additional fresh air louver on the side of the county’s new 911 Center, which is slated to open later this year.
  • Received a presentation from the administrators of the county’s pension fund for the portfolio’s performance in the 4th quarter of 2022.
  • Learned that the paving project at the Lebanon Valley Expo Center has been completed. Although entrance widening is still pending, Pat Kerwin, executive director for the Lebanon Valley Expo Center, said many center vendors and show participants have expressed their gratitude for the newly paved lots. Kerwin noted that the lots used to be gravel, dirt and, when wet, muddy. He said this meant many show attendees had to wash their vehicles or tractors before showcasing them at an event at the fairgrounds.
  • Granted the termination of Jenna Reitz from the Commission for Women due to non-attendance and reappointed Elizabeth Judd to a second term.
  • Received the treasurer’s report and approved various personnel transactions.
  • Approved the minutes of its Feb. 2 meeting.
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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...