News

Multi-pronged approach helps Armstrong Co. buck the trend in OD deaths

Written by Sarah Steighner/The Leader-Times | Jul 31, 2018 7:00 AM
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Newsrooms across the commonwealth have spent years documenting the opioid crisis in their own communities. But now, in the special project State of Emergency: Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania's Opioids Crisis, we are marshalling resources to spotlight what Pennsylvanians are doing to try to reverse the soaring number of overdose deaths.

WITF is releasing more than 60 stories, videos and photos throughout July. This week, you will find stories about changing the trend.

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Armstrong County leaders say education, agency networking, treatment opportunities and the use of Narcan with bucking the statewide trend in opioid overdoses.

The county's significant decrease in overdose death rates this year caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who recently conducted a heroin and opioid epidemic roundtable in Kittanning Borough.

Toomey met with the county's commissioners, first responders, drug commission leaders and other local officials. Toomey said he wanted the opportunity to discuss ways of fighting the opioid epidemic while listening to what local efforts might have any correlation to the decrease in overdose deaths.

Multiple factors in overdose death decline

Factors cited as possible reasons for the decline included: education prevention, efforts to reduce addiction stigma, multi-department networking efforts, treatment opportunities, and the use of the life-saving opioid antagonist Narcan.

Armstrong County saw 41 overdose deaths in both 2016 and 2017 each, according to Kami Anderson, executive director of the Armstrong-Indiana Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission (AICDAC).

Meanwhile, the county has reported a total of three overdose related deaths to date for 2018, she added.

"If it is true that a decline in overdose deaths were seen in Armstrong, Indiana and Clarion (counties), then that is clearly not the national or state trend," Toomey said. "The actual broader trends are much, much worse. Things are actually accelerating. If you guys have somehow turned this - then it is a very big deal."

Epidemic-fighting measures

Anderson explained AICDAC's recent measures to combat the epidemic, which have included providing local emergency response personnel with Narcan, as well as a focus on their "Warm Hand- Off Program."

That program provides consultation and resources from certified recovery specialists to help in getting addicts into treatment - sometimes directly from hospital emergency room's following an overdose.

"We have given out almost 4,000 (Narcan) kits in the county," Anderson said. "From the paperwork we've done, that has attributed to over 400 (lives) saved that were reported."

AICDAC has also worked with local law enforcement and emergency response agencies to provide training on the services they offer, in order to educate them on how to aid addicts in entering treatment.

Toomey asked whether addicts consider Narcan a "safety net," which could encourage them to continue using. Mike Krafik of AICDAC said addicts don't tend to think along those terms.

"Everyone thinks that this (overdose) is something that can't happen to them," Krafik said. "People overdose in public parking lots because that's probably where they're getting the drugs, and they want to use as soon as they get it. They know that Narcan would send them into instant withdrawal. They're not looking for a bailout with Narcan."

County DA praises collaborative measures

District Attorney Katie Charlton said that while finding resources to address the epidemic can be "challenging," she has witnessed extensive collaborative measures between law enforcement officers and AICDAC.

"My law enforcement officers have those connections in place with the drug commission so they know where to turn for resources and help for the addicts," Charlton said. "Everyone has worked hard to get out the message against stigma and for Narcan out there, but we still see frustration. My officers are frustrated, but that's because they're local people that truly care about the community. That's what has them on guard to do what is necessary to tackle the problem."

Charlton elaborated on the county's mission to be, "more aggressive prosecuting drug dealers in the county," citing the fact that they have doubled the number of drug-related arrests in the first quarter of the year.

Research to validate the decreased numbers

Toomey expressed interest in analyzing what proactive measures and implemented programs might have contributed to the decline in overdoses.

"The numbers are good, but before it is statistically valid it needs to continue for a while," Toomey said.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Erick Lauber said he is currently involved in research with the MARTI (Mid-Atlantic Research and Training Institute for Community and Behavioral Health) Institute to determine just that.

"To truly prevent the harm that any and all substance abuse causes, we need a strategy that addresses the most fundamental issue -- that our citizens are putting mind- and mood-altering substances into the bodies in order to feel a certain way," Lauber said. "I fear that while we may get on top of this particular opioid crisis in years to come, we may be in store for something more insidious and widespread in future generations."

He initiated a call to action for leaders to mobilize their communities to reconnect, learn more, engage, and support anti-addiction efforts.

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