In this Nov. 14, 2019 photo, Jon Combes holds his bottle of buprenorphine, a medicine that prevents withdrawal sickness in people trying to stop using opiates, as he prepares to take a dose in a clinic in Olympia, Wash. The clinic is working to spread a philosophy called "medication first," which scraps requirements for counseling, abstinence or even a commitment to recovery in the battle against addictions to heroin and other opioids.
Brett Sholtis is WITF’s Transforming Health reporter, covering health policy and community health issues that affect Pennsylvanians. Brett strives to share personal stories that have a tie to broad issues and emerging trends. He seeks to give voice to diverse viewpoints, including those of people living with mental illness, disability and those living in poverty. He plays a key role in WITF’s mental health series, Through the Cracks, which reports on problem areas in mental health services and efforts to reduce stigma around those living with behavioral disorders. Previously, Brett was a business reporter at the York Daily Record, where his work included award-winning examinations of the nuclear power industry and food safety. He is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard veteran.
(Harrisburg) — More than 4,300 people died from drug overdoses in Pennsylvania during 2019, according to a recent state Department of Health report.
That’s about a 1 percent decrease from the previous year — and an indication that the opioid crisis is far from over, according to people working in addiction recovery. Opioids were involved in 80 percent of the year’s overdose deaths.
“Amid a national pandemic, we must continue to realize that the opioid crisis has not gone away,” said Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.
Annual overdose deaths have decreased 19 percent since the state launched a coordinated effort to address opioid addiction in 2017, Levine noted.
But while tighter restrictions on prescription drugs have helped prevent people from getting addicted, many people live with substance abuse disorders that began years ago, according to Julia Dunn, program director at the York-based grief and loss center Olivia’s House.
Dunn and her three coworkers have helped thousands of children and adults deal with deaths of their loved ones, a service the organization provides at no cost.
She said when the opioid crisis was often the focus of news stories and state press conferences in 2018, most of the people who joined Olivia’s House programs had lost loved ones to heroin or prescription drugs.
That fact hasn’t changed, Dunn said. However, she says as people grapple with the coronavirus and focus on racial justice, much of the attention and some of the financial resources have shifted away from helping people affected by opioid abuse.
But the virus has driven up unemployment and shuttered businesses like restaurants and gyms — where people in recovery often gather. Dunn says these conditions adds stress to those who are living “one day at a time” with a substance abuse disorder.
And, while she said some good changes have been made, she worries about people who are at risk for relapsing into opioid abuse at a time when stress is up and resources are just as important as ever.
“The opioid epidemic is not tamed,” Dunn said. “It’s not gone, and it’s still something we need to focus on.”
The state health department urges people with substance use issues to call the PA Get Help Now helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357).