As recently as 2007, there were as few as 19 heroin deaths in Delaware County, Hellman said.
The recent increase in deaths, Hellman said, reflects an overall increase in heroin use in the county. "I see the people who die," he said.
"Heroin is a real problem with us," District Attorney Jack Whelan said this week. He said the power of the drug is overwhelming: "You are either addicted or dead."
The task force includes representatives from law enforcement and behavioral and intercommunity health departments, the medical examiner, and other county officials. It met Friday to begin developing prevention and awareness strategies.
The drug knows no boundaries, officials said. The deaths are just as likely to be in well-to-do households as not. The deaths have occurred throughout the county.
"These are good families where kids are making bad choices," said Marianne Grace, the county's executive director. She said the task force will begin to target the county's middle and high schools with prevention and educational programs.
Hellman said the signs of heroin use can be very subtle: a slight change in behavior, a slip in grades, missing money.
In September 2011, Hellman said, one death involved a 19-year-old college student home from school who had no known history of drug abuse. She was found dead in her bedroom by her parents after attending a friend's birthday party.
"We are seeing people start much younger with prescription painkillers and then transition to heroin," said Kim Bowman, deputy director of the state's newly created Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. About one-third of all treatment admissions are for heroin and opiate use, she said. The state does not specifically track heroin deaths, she said.
Seventeen deaths have been reported across Upper Darby in the last 18 months, said Michael J. Chitwood, superintendent of police. One reason for the drug's popularity is the cheap street price; about three to four bags for $20, compared with $25 for a single pill of the prescription drug Percocet or OxyContin, he said.
"There are no open-air drug corners," Chitwood said. Typically the drug buys are made by phone and delivered. Dealers are coming from Philadelphia into the suburbs, he said. Most of the users are white and between 18 and 50 years of age, Chitwood said.
The number of deaths would be much higher if not for paramedics who carry Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of the overdose, he said: "I can't tell you how many they bring back from death's doorstep."
Contact Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149, email@example.com or @MariSchaefer on Twitter.