Top Pa. official: 2015 drug overdose deaths will top 2014's high

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Feb 25, 2016 4:59 PM

Photo by Ben Allen/witf

Gary Tennis, secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, says deaths from drug overdoses in 2015 will top 2014's total.

(Harrisburg) -- Pennsylvania's top anti-drug official says he expects last year's overdose deaths will top 2014's number. It's the latest news in what is proving to be a long fight to slow the spread of heroin and prescription painkiller abuse.

More than 2,500 people were killed by drug overdoses in 2014.

Statewide data for last year is expected in the coming months.

Secretary Gary Tennis serves as the head of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. Tennis says he's talked with some county coroners known for keeping current and comprehensive records, who say their 2015 totals top the previous year's result.

Thousands of people have died in the past year, but Tennis says police have also used naloxone to save hundreds of people.

"If we were not doing the things we did, number one, it would be even worse than it is today. We've got 600 people, in the last year, who are alive today, because of what we did," he adds.

Many police departments now carry naloxone, which reverses an overdose on drugs like heroin or oxycontin.

But Tennis says saving people isn't enough - health care professionals need to get them help.

For months, he's been pushing emergency department staff to provide a "warm handoff" - urging someone rescued from an overdose to get treatment.

He says the state and the Pennsylvania Medical Society have also put together a class for health care providers on the topic.

Meanwhile, Tennis says his department can only fund addiction treatment for about one in eight people who ask for help, which is actually better than the national average.

He says with more funding, the agency would be able to ramp up its efforts.

He says: "When you have these kind of crises, when you have these kind of epidemics, you start to kick in your solutions. You start to kick in and find anything you can find, and we're looking for everything we can, and implementing everything we can."

Tennis says everyone he meets is willing to pay slightly higher taxes if it means more treatment for people who are addicted to drugs.

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