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Continuing Coverage: Tackling Pennsylvania's Opioid Crisis

Written by Tim Lambert, WITF Multimedia News Director | Jan 26, 2019 8:10 PM

Pennsylvania has one of the highest opioid overdose death rates in the nation -- with nearly 13 people dying everyday. In 2018, Governor Tom Wolf declared the opioid addiction epidemic a "disaster emergency," counties began suing pharmaceutical companies, prosecutors began using the charge, "drug delivery resulting in death," more and more and communities and families looked for ways to help. WITF's Transforming Health reporter Brett Sholtis spent much of the year chronicling these efforts, while telling the stories of people impacted the most. 

*Some of the following stories have been edited.*



Story 1:

Governor Tom Wolf has declared Pennsylvania's opioid addiction epidemic a "disaster emergency."

Usually that designation's reserved for things like natural disasters. This is the first time a Pennsylvania governor has used it for a health issue.

WITF's Katie Meyer reports, the move's designed to let the state cut through red tape to address the crisis more quickly.

Story 2:

Early reports show more Pennsylvanians died of drug overdoses in 2017 than in any prior year.

Nationwide, overdoses have become the leading cause of death for people under 50 years old - eclipsing suicide.

We know that overdose deaths are only expected to increase in the next couple years, as people with prescription drug addictions turn to heroin.

What we don't know is how many children those statistics are leaving behind.

WITF's Brett Sholtis reports, we're just beginning to see how these deaths will affect the children left without parents and the families raising them.

 Story 3:

As the opioid epidemic rages, first responders are on the front lines, dealing with overdose victims. 

In Dauphin County, Susquehanna Township EMS crews - like others across the region -- are increasingly relying on naloxone to revive people who OD.

WITF's Brett Sholtis rode along with EMS Captain Dan Tempel during a recent evening shift and saw first-hand the challenges they face in dealing with the heroin problem. 

In this report, using only sound collected throughout the night, he tells the story of the crew rushing to save a man in Harrisburg who overdosed.

The main voice you hear is from Captain Tempel.

As a note to listeners, some of the sounds contained in this story may be disturbing.

Story 4:

Four out of five heroin users first became addicted to prescription drugs like OxyContin and Percocet.

While opioid addiction has caused immense suffering for families, it's also cost communities billions of dollars.

Some are now filing lawsuits against the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured the addictive prescription drugs.

Transforming Health's Brett Sholtis reports counties across the state are hoping the lawsuits will help them fight the epidemic.

Story 5: 

With drug overdose deaths showing no signs of slowing, prosecutors are charging drug dealers as one way to try to stem the tide of addiction.

The evidence of whether this works is not settled.

But for families who have lost someone, putting a dealer behind bars can bring some measure of justice.

Transforming Health's Brett Sholtis has one family's story.

 Story 6:

Medication-assisted treatment combines counseling with opioids like buprenorphine or methadone as one way to overcome heroin addiction.  

The medical community says the treatment works -- and Medicaid pays for it.

Transforming Health's Brett Sholtis has more on a woman who has managed to stay off heroin for three years because of the therapy.

 Story 7: 

The opioid crisis has led communities across the state to try to find answers to help people struggling with addiction.

Transforming Health's Brett Sholtis has the story of how one recently-opened business in Schuylkill County is brewing up coffee and opening the doors to those who want to get clean.

 Story 8: 

The state is making sure people have access to an opioid reversal drug  - by handing it out across the commonwealth.

Transforming Health's Brett Sholtis has more from the Cumberland County state health center, where people showed up to get their naloxone.


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