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Heroin deaths on decline in Lebanon County

Written by John Latimer, Lebanon Daily News | Mar 18, 2016 2:00 PM
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Increased use of heroin antidote, Narcan, and effort to raise public awareness credited

Lebanon County is still in the midst of a heroin epidemic, but there are signs that attempts to combat it are being effective, the head of the Lebanon County Drug and Alcohol Commission said on Thursday.

Tops among the indicators that efforts to reduce heroin use are producing results is a decline in the number of fatalities, Jim Donmoyer told the Lebanon County commissioners when delivering his annual report.

Last year, the county experienced 17 heroin-related deaths, which was one shy of the number recorded in 2014. This year to date, there has been one, and it occurred on Jan. 1, Donmoyer said.

"I'm pleasantly surprised that (Coroner) Dr. Yocum hasn't called me as much as he has in the past," he said.

Donmoyer partially credited the reduction in deaths to the increased use of Narcan, also called Naloxone, which is a heroin antidote that can stop an overdose instantaneously. The medication is now carried by most paramedics and local police departments.

"The use of that has saved hundreds of lives across the state, and I know it's saved people in Lebanon County as well," he said.

The turnaround in the rise in heroin deaths also occurred with the county commissioners' creation of a heroin task force that was formed shortly after a town hall meeting, organized by the Lebanon Daily News, which drew 200 people to HACC-Lebanon Campus in September, Donmoyer said.

Fifteen people had already died last year prior to the town hall and the formation of the task force. In the five months since then, just three have died.

"I would like to believe that the heroin task force that we formed in Lebanon County is another reason (for the decline)," Donmoyer said. "We formed that task force after we had the public forum at HACC, and we had a lot of interest; a lot of people concerned. A lot of people showed up."

Composed of about 35 people from the fields of medicine, drug treatment and law enforcement, the Lebanon County Heroin Task Force is chaired by Donmoyer and Mayor Sherry Capello. It meets quarterly, but its members have split into four subcommittees, which meet more frequently to plan ways to reduce heroin use.

"We call them pillars," Donmoyer said. "One pillar's prevention. One pillar's harm reduction. One' pillar's law enforcement, and the other pillar's treatment and recovery. Those committees are independent of our main task force, and are working on a lot of things."

The decline in the number of overdose patients coming to WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital is also supporting the evidence that the county's proactive steps are helping people find treatment resources to battle their addiction, Donmoyer said.

Last year, in a typical month, 60 to 70 people would visit the GSH emergency room. In the first two months of this year, those numbers were down to about 40.

What needs to improve, said Donmoyer, is his agency's relationship with the hospital. Patients are given information to get in touch with the Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, but few do, he said. All he gets is the raw data from the hospital, but no way to contact the substance abuser.

"I'd like to make our relationship with the hospital better, so that we are being notified of those overdoses and we are intervening with those people," he said.

To further the fight against heroin addiction this year, Donmoyer said he plans to use a $39,000 state grant to add another medical treatment option to the methadone and Subutex already offered by the county. It's brand name is Vivitrol and is taken just once a month.

While all the signs are promising, now is not the time to relax, Donmoyer told the commissioners. He noted his agency still served 570 individuals last year, nearly identical to 2014, and heroin was again the No. 1 drug of choice.

"We are going to continue to do town hall meetings. We are going to get on public service announcements," he said. "Now it's (the surge in heroin overdoses) stopped, but now I don't want people to forget about it. We are trying to go full speed ahead."

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between Lebanon Daily News and WITF. 

Published in Lebanon, News

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