An illustrated look:
The opioid epidemic by
the numbers

By Natasha Khan
Illustrations by Christina Lee

June 28, 2018

Pennsylvania has the fourth highest fatal overdose rate per capita of any state in the country, based on 2016 data analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of annual overdose deaths reported in Allegheny County has more than doubled since 2014 — with 737 in 2017. And fentanyl, an opioid more potent than heroin, is now found in the bodies of overdose victims in the county more than any other drug.

The numbers alone are staggering.

But there is some light in the darkness. Available data shows more people on the brink of death are now being saved by police administering naloxone, a drug that if given quickly can reverse an overdose. And more people are receiving addiction treatment through the state’s Medicaid program.

Data collection also seems to be improving. In response to what has been called the “worst public health crisis in Pennsylvania, and the nation, in almost a generation,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in January declared the heroin and opioid epidemic a statewide disaster emergency.

The move made it mandatory to report overdoses and neonatal abstinence syndrome (newborns exposed to addictive drugs) to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Reporting these conditions was not previously required, making it difficult to determine the magnitude of the epidemic across the state. Pennsylvania now has an open dashboard to view some of this data.

Below, PublicSource has used available data for Allegheny County and the state to communicate visually how this epidemic has affected our region. We have noted below each graphic in cases where only a portion of data or a subset of a population is available.


In Allegheny County, there were 737 reported overdose deaths in 2017. That’s a roughly 13 percent increase from 2016 when there were 650. Although overdose deaths have steadily risen each year since 2014, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office saw the concentration of overdoses by quarter peak in late 2016 and has seen a drop in every quarter since then. County officials attribute the decrease to many factors, including the increased distribution of naloxone — a drug that can reverse an overdose — and efforts by government agencies and community groups to address the opioid epidemic.

(Source: Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office via OverdoseFreePA)

Overdose deaths in 2017 were almost always caused by a combination of drugs, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office. Deaths involving fentanyl spiked more than four times compared to its 2015 amount.

(Source: Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office and OverdoseFreePA)

This graphic only depicts newborns on Medicaid because it is what is publicly available for county-level data from a state agency. Prior to 2018, neonatal abstinence syndrome [NAS] was not required to be reported to the state. In January, Gov. Tom Wolf declared the opioid and heroin epidemic a statewide disaster emergency. At that time, he made NAS a condition that is required to be reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Health for all newborns.

(Source: Pennsylvania Opioid Data Dashboard)

These figures include all grandparents taking care of grandchildren in Pennsylvania, not only those who are doing so because of drug-related causes.

(Source: Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children)

There is no mandate that law enforcement in Pennsylvania report naloxone reversals to the state. This graphic only depicts voluntary self reports by police.

(Source: Pennsylvania Opioid Data Dashboard)

This graphic only depicts people diagnosed with an opioid use disorder who receive Medicaid because it is the only county-level data from the state that is publicly available, according to the Pennsylvania and Allegheny County health departments.

In 2015, there were 236,338 people in Allegheny County enrolled in Medicaid. In 2016, there were 255,139.

(Source: Pennsylvania Opioid Data Dashboard)

Medication-assisted treatment is when mild opiates and other medicines are used to help curb cravings or block the effects of opioid use in a patient’s brain. Medicines used in this type of treatment include methadone, Vivitrol and buprenorphine.

The races of the figures depicted above are not representative of the people who receive medication-assisted treatment in Allegheny County. Racial data for people who receive this type of treatment is not publicly available.

This graphic only depicts Medicaid recipients receiving medication-assisted treatment because it is the only county-level data from the state that is publicly available, according to the Pennsylvania and Allegheny County health departments.

(Source: Pennsylvania Opioid Data Dashboard)

Natasha Khan is PublicSource's interactives & design editor. She can be reached at or on Twitter @khantasha.

Christina Lee is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator. Find her work at

This page was fact-checked by Jeffrey Benzing.

Edited by Halle Stockton and Mila Sanina.

Art direction by Natasha Khan and Halle Stockton.

This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation.

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Part of the PublicSource series

The Fix

Stories about the opioid epidemic
in the Pittsburgh region.
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