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Pennsylvania continues to address opioid crisis

Intelligencer Journal - 4/22/2021

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 5,377 fatal overdoses in Pennsylvania at the height of the opioid overdose crisis in 2017. Those Pennsylvanians represent our loved ones and neighbors — people who battled substance use disorder but were predominately cast in the shadows due to stigma and the lack of resources to live a full, healthy life in recovery.

That is why, on Jan. 10, 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a first-of-its-kind disaster declaration proclaiming heroin and opioid addiction a public health emergency in Pennsylvania and directing specific executive actions to combat the crisis. Since that time, the opioid disaster declaration has been renewed 13 times in a continued effort to curb the opioid overdose epidemic.

This disaster emergency declaration has proven to be an important tool in the commonwealth’s quick response in adapting to developing needs, increasing access to treatment and saving lives.

By focusing on strategic, coordinated efforts, we have ensured all Pennsylvanians have access to the lifesaving drug, naloxone, through a state secretary of health’s standing order and various methods to reach the general public and high-risk communities.

We have expanded access to medication-assisted treatment throughout Pennsylvania communities and our state correctional institutions. Additionally, doctor-shopping has been virtually eliminated through the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.

These examples and others led to an 18% reduction rate in fatal overdoses from 2017 to 2018, an additional 4% decrease from 2018 to 2019 and an additional 1% decrease in 2019.

Pennsylvania has received national attention for the progress made to combat the epidemic and ultimately save lives. Because of the disaster emergency declaration, we were able to successfully coordinate and collaborate within the Wolf administration, and with federal and local government entities and community partners.

At the center of the collaboration is the Opioid Command Center created by the disaster emergency declaration. The command center broke down decadelong silos within state government, leveraging the diverse strengths and skill sets of 18 state agencies to collaborate effectively to save lives.

Now, as we see another increase in overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critically important for Pennsylvanians to remain focused on the overdose epidemic.

All Pennsylvanians have experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness throughout the nation’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts. For individuals with substance use disorder, those feelings — paired with job loss, food insecurity, homelessness and other economic insecurities — have created the perfect storm for overdoses.

Together, the opioid disaster declaration and COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration have allowed the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to quickly adopt federal policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, like the expansion of telehealth and increased eligibility for medication-assisted treatment take-home dosages.

These policies have allowed individuals to continue substance use disorder treatment with little to no disruption and proved to be very beneficial for both provider and patient safety during mitigation efforts.

As the commonwealth adapts to our new normal post-pandemic, we know supporting individuals’ behavioral health will play a significant role in keeping Pennsylvanians healthy.

The Wolf administration has an obligation to all Pennsylvanians to continue existing efforts and make further expansions to support individuals with substance use disorder, especially high-risk populations.

Wolf’s opioid disaster emergency declaration humanized the disease of addiction. It solidified the importance of the work within the drug and alcohol community by encouraging large-scale collaborations. It has brought to light the fact that substance use disorder affects every Pennsylvanian regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

And, most importantly, it has shown that to save lives we must cut through the bureaucracy and respond nimbly with impactful, strategic policy across all of state government.

Only then, with the necessary supports and services, will individuals with substance use disorder feel empowered to step out of the shadows of addiction and seek the help they deserve.

If you or a loved one is battling substance use disorder, help is available. Pennsylvania operates the PA Get Help Now Hotline at 800-662-HELP (4357). The hotline is available 24/7 and is staffed by trained professionals who can provide a direct, warm-line connection to treatment or services in your local area.

Jennifer Smith is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs

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Crédito: JENNIFER SMITH | Commentary