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State urges lifting stigmas on opioid addiction

While we have been laser-focused on the COVID-19 pandemic which is taking a horrible toll on our families, friends and community members, we have lost sight of another epidemic that also have been ravaging our citizenry - opioid addiction.

That’s why the Wolf administration made it a special point last week to remind Pennsylvanians that opioid concerns have neither gone away nor lessened during the last nine months when COVID-19 has been our top of mind awareness.

In fact, Wolf, along with state Department of Health representatives, called on all of us to put an end to the stigma surrounding addiction and emphasized once again the many programs available to those afflicting the individuals, their families and loved ones who must deal with the many issues that surround this cruel addiction.

Add to this the fact that December has always been a particularly challenging month for those who struggle with addiction because of psychological factors tied to the holiday season, we can appreciate why 2020 is especially more problematic.

Superimposing COVID-19 restrictions of mask-wearing and social distancing protocols resulting in more isolation may lead addicts to relapse more now than in the past.

According to Deputy Health Secretary Raymond Barishansky, 4,457 people died of drug-related overdoses in Pennsylvania in 2019. Although there are no official figures for 2020, he said anecdotally he has heard from a number of counties that are experiencing increases in drug-related overdoses.

The Schuylkill County deputy coroner said there had been 93 drug-related deaths in the county as of Oct. 4, almost twice as many as in all of 2019 when state statistics showed there were 54.

Carbon County reported 27 drug-related deaths in 2019; Monroe had 58; Northampton, 59; and Lehigh, 146, according to state statistics.

The Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs has a toll-free helpline that connects callers looking for treatment options for themselves, a family member or friend to resources in their community. The number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

“The most important thing for people to know is that there is hope through the help that is available for Pennsylvanians struggling with substance use disorder,” said DDAP Secretary Jennifer Smith.

“Even during the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s drug and alcohol treatment providers are open and operational. If people are deciding whether to take that first, brave step, there is absolutely no shame in seeking help to lead a happy, healthy life. We must end the stigma associated with substance use disorder. Ending addiction stigma means saving Pennsylvania lives,” she said.

In addition to Life Unites Us, the administration is calling on all Pennsylvanians to carry naloxone, which is available at pharmacies for those with public and private insurance plans either for free or at a low cost.

Naloxone is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdoses. It has been credited with saving thousands of lives. Medical professionals say that it can very quickly restore normalcy in a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications.

Naloxone has also been made available through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s Centralized Coordinating Entities, through free public naloxone giveaways at Pennsylvania Health Centers, in partnership with Pennsylvania colleges and universities through distribution to narcotic treatment providers throughout the commonwealth.

In attacking the scourge of this opioid addiction, there have been some promising advances, according to Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. She said the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program has reduced opioid prescriptions by 47 percent and has virtually eliminated doctor shopping.

Some other key advancements to which she pointed include:

• More than 45 Centers of Excellence, administered by the Department of Human Services, provide coordinated, evidence-based treatment to people with an opioid use disorder covered by Medicaid. The COEs have treated more than 32,500 people since first launching in 2016.

• Education has been provided to more than 7,000 prescribers through either line or face-to-face education.

• 882 drug take-back boxes help Pennsylvanians properly dispose of unwanted drugs, including 178,540 pounds of unwanted drugs in 2019. 2020 data is not yet available.

• The Get Help Now Hotline received more than 44,000 calls, with more than half of all callers connected directly to a treatment provider.

• Emergency medical services have administered more than 47,000 doses of naloxone and more than 10,000 doses were made available to members of the public during the state’s naloxone distribution last year.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com