Lebanon County Commissioners learned Thursday how severely the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted both the mental health and physical well being of local residents.

“It was a year that was very forgettable,” said Dr. Jeffrey Yocum, Lebanon County Coroner at the beginning of his report to two of the three commissioners. Commissioner Bill Ames was not in attendance to attend to personal matters. “I’ve never had a year like this in all my years as assistant coroner and as the head coroner.”

As might be expected during a global pandemic, the workload of the coroner’s office increased greatly. Dr. Yocum provided the following sobering statistics from his office in 2020 over the previous year:

  • 497 deaths were investigated in 2020, an increase of 177 cases. A total of 116 were related to COVID-19.
  • Of the 116 COVID-19 deaths, a majority (101) were in individuals ages 70 and older. The youngest person to die from the coronavirus was 45 years old. Yocum noted the county investigated every COVID-19 case, whether it came through nursing homes, hospitals or funeral homes for individuals who had died at home.
  • There were 21 suicides, an increase of two over the previous year.

Yocum noted the county’s COVID-19 numbers do not match those of the state and added that, for various reasons, the county’s numbers are “very accurate figures” compared to the state’s numbers.

Bob Dowd, Director, Department of Emergency Services, clarified later in the meeting that county residents who died outside the county, using Hershey Medical Center as an example, were not included in the county’s death count since those fatalities could not be investigated by the local coroner’s office.

“So this is not a complete picture of the number of deaths that occurred in Lebanon County [residents] due to COVID,” Dowd said.

The pandemic took a major toll on the mental health of local residents as well, according to Jim Donmoyer, Director, Pennsylvania Counseling Services.

There were 39 drug-related overdose deaths in 2020 versus 28 in 2019, an increase of 39 percent. Demographically, 27 were males versus 12 females ranging in ages from 19 to 60 with an average age of 38.8 years old. A total of 26 were Caucasian, 11 were Latino, and the races of the other two individuals could not be identified.

Donmoyer said May through August were the worst months for overdose deaths with May witnessing the most at eight. In March, which is when restrictions began in Pennsylvania, there were zero overdose deaths. Overdose death rates also decreased significantly from September through the end of the year.

For the first time, the county started to announce overdose deaths by zip codes. A majority of the deaths (27) occurred in the 17042 (14) and 17046 (13) zip codes. (17042 and 17046 are the two zip codes for the city of Lebanon.)

“We, along with GIS, created a mapping system so people can go online and see where most of these overdoses are occurring,” Donmoyer said. “This allows our office to target problem areas, so to speak, and where we can provide more treatment opportunities and prevention opportunities in those areas.”

A major common denominator in those deaths (25 of the 39) was the presence of fentanyl, which represents 64 percent of all of the overdose deaths in Lebanon County, according to Donmoyer.

Fentanyl is a highly addictive and highly deadly opioid that is prescribed to treat severe pain. However, drug dealers cut and mix fentanyl with other substances and sell it to drug abusers. Fentanyl can cause respiratory distress and death when taken in high doses or combined with other substances, especially alcohol.

Read More: Progress made against opioids in Lebanon County, but no victory laps yet

“So fentanyl continues to be a common substance that’s found in most of these overdose deaths,” Donmoyer noted.

Donmoyer said the 2020 overdose deaths are the highest ever in Lebanon County, a fact that does not sit well with his agency.

“Not happy about the increase, obviously,” Donmoyer said. “One’s too many, and 39 is absolutely way, way, way too much. This is the highest number we’ve had in Lebanon Country since I’ve been here and, I’m not sure, but probably for anyone else who was here before me.”

Donmoyer said there are a number of strategies his office is taking, in cooperation with the state and other related agencies, to address this ongoing epidemic in an effort to help lower or to at least “level off the number of overdose deaths in the county.”

Holly Leahy, administrator for the county’s mental health, intellectual disability and early intervention programs, discussed the suicide rate statistics, noting that 14 males and seven females took their lives in 2020.

“This year was quite notable for the number of females,” Leahy said. “On average, we have one or two females per year, so seven of the 21, or 33 percent in Lebanon County, is very concerning for us.”

The race of 20 of the 21 people who died were Caucasian with one death within the Latino community, Leahy said. A majority (12) were completed by firearm, and she further noted that the youngest individual was 20 and the oldest was 89, for an average age of 52.7 years old.

“It is interesting to note that only nine of those individuals had a known mental health history and were receiving services,” Leahy said.

Leahy said the county’s Suicide Prevention Task Force meets monthly and has been running an ongoing media campaign to raise awareness about suicide deaths.

“Through federal CARES funding, we were able to do some extra media and marketing campaign efforts during 2020,” said Leahy. “We had virtual training opportunities, which were virtual due to COVID-19, and included mental health first aid and suicide prevention training.”

Additionally, federal CARES dollars were available for outpatient therapy for individuals who normally would fall outside the normal parameters required to receive financial assistance from county agencies.

“The [CARES] funding was for individuals who can’t normally access county funding,” Leahy said. “Normally, folks must have a diagnosis of serious mental illness in order to access that. So it was a wonderful opportunity to assist individuals who didn’t meet that criteria.”

Leahy said her agency plans to ramp up outreach this year — especially since there was an increase in the number of suicides in 2020 and added that outreach will occur in a safe environment for both staff and clients.

Commissioner Robert Phillips asked if there were statistics demonstrating how many people had been successfully treated via the various hotlines that people can call for mental health assistance.

It was noted that 2,200 individuals were assisted via crisis intervention between July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020, which was up exactly 200 cases for the same time period in the previous year.

However, there is no way to track how many cases are successfully mitigated. Officials did say that since suicide ideation has increased greatly, initiatives to address it have also increased at a corresponding rate.

In promoting hope amid an ongoing global pandemic, Dowd said that the advent of vaccinations indicates “light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.” He did, however, caution residents to manage their expectations of vaccine rollouts. As is the case everywhere, demand exceeds available supply with Lebanon County receiving 2,500 doses per week.

Dowd said the state is still in the first phase of vaccination protocols, which is for all healthcare workers, persons ages 65 and older and people ages 16 to 64 who have a subset of pre-existing health conditions.

“It will be weeks and months until we can get everyone vaccinated,” Dowd said after asking individuals to manage their expectations.

Yocum also announced other figures that involved his office in 2020:

  • There were 61 accidental deaths, an increase of 20 from 2019.
  • Seventeen deaths by motor vehicle accidents, an increase of 5.
  • There were three homicides, an increase of two.
  • Two drowning cases, an increase of 1.
  • Two deaths each from falls and compression asphyxiation.
  • One death each by smoke inhalation, a shop (industrial) accident, and multi-force trauma.
  • The cause of two other deaths could not be determined.

A total of 828 cremations were conducted, an increase of 126, with Yocum adding that his office honors all cremation requests.

Other topics discussed at Thursday’s meeting are covered here.

Read More: Commissioners discuss Annville child abuse case, planned 911 center in North Cornwall Township

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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; and Lancaster...