Fentanyl key in city's fatal overdose cluster of 35 in Dec., report says

In a bathroom at an acquaintance’s house in Kensington, Victor Colon, a 42-year-old loving uncle and coach, died of an overdose on Dec. 4.

With a Bible by her side, 31-year-old Grace Pello, a God-fearing woman who regularly went to church, took her last breath on her bed in Kensington with a fatal overdose Dec. 4.

Overdose deaths in Philadelphia Overdose deaths clustered in the North Philadelphia and Kensington neighborhoods, though occurred across Philadelphia. Source: Philadelphia Department of Public Health

And on a cold sidewalk in Kensington Dec. 5, Sean Jimenez, a devoted father of two from the suburbs, died alone after snorting a fatal dose of what he believed was heroin.

Colon, Pello, and Jimenez were among 35 people who died of drug overdoses in the city from Dec. 1 to 5. A report released by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on Thursday confirms fentanyl played a role in most of those cases.  

In fact, 13 of the 35 victims died from overdoses of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is anywhere from 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the department. Another 13 of the victims overdosed on a mixture of heroin and fentanyl, and five overdosed on heroin, the report said.

Cocaine was responsible for three of the overdose deaths during the deadly five-day period, and in nine of the cases, benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax -- drugs that are even more dangerous when ingested with alcohol or opioids -- were found in the systems of the victims, according to the department.

The 35th victim’s overdose substance was not identified in the report.

James Garrow, spokesman for the Medical Examiner’s Office, declined to release the information in the 35th overdose because it was a single case and the medical examiner did not want to compromise the identity of that individual, he said.

Dec. 1 was the deadliest day of the spike, with 12 fatal overdoses – “more than had ever been reported on a single day to the Medical Examiner’s Office,” according to the report.  Philadelphia averages between two and three fatal overdoses a day, the department said.

While many of the overdose deaths happened in and around Kensington, the epicenter of heroin sales in Philadelphia, they also occurred in the Northeast, South Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, and West Philadelphia, according to the report.

The victims, 66 percent of them men, ranged in age from 19 to 66. Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 60 percent of the fatalities, followed by black victims, who accounted for a little more than 20 percent, the department said. Those statistics are representative of drug-overdose victims over the last three years in the city, according to the report.

More than 900 people died from drug overdoses last year in Philadelphia, more than triple the city’s homicide rate, the Medical Examiner’s Office said.