Opioid abuse

The number of drug-related overdose deaths in Pennsylvania fell slightly in 2019, state health officials announced Tuesday.

Preliminary estimates show that there were 4,384 drug-related deaths in 2019, a decrease of 1.7 percent compared to 2018. More than 80 percent of the deaths were opioid-related.

“The preliminary data show that drug-related overdose deaths decreased slightly in Pennsylvania in 2019. Amid a national pandemic, we must continue to realize that the opioid crisis has not gone away,” Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said.

There are still 62 undetermined death records for 2019 where the county coroner or medical examiner has yet to report the cause of death or list toxicology information to the department, according to the report. As these cases are amended with the cause of death it may increase the number of drug-related overdose deaths, officials said.

The highest number of emergency department visits per 10,000 population occurred in August and the largest number of opioid-related fatalities happened in August and December, the report said.

The number of drug-related deaths in Pennsylvania has dropped more than 19 percent since 2017 when the Opioid Command Center was established.

“We know that the opioid crisis is one that has affected everyone across demographics; it doesn’t matter their location, socioeconomic class, gender, race or ethnicity,” said Ray Barishansky, Deputy Secretary of Health Preparedness and Community Protection and Incident Commander for the Opioid Crisis. “The Opioid Command Center remains focused on our work to assist those who are on the frontlines addressing this crisis. We know that the effects of COVID-19 have seen renewed opioid concerns in many parts of the state, and we are working to address those needs.”

Efforts to curb the opioid crisis have been effective in several areas, according to a report released by the center

The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, launched in August 2016, has reduced opioid prescriptions by 34 percent and has nearly eliminated doctor shopping and the number of people receiving high dosages of opioids has dropped 53 percent.

Naxolone that has been provided to first responders has helped save nearly 12,700 lives. 

More than 178,000 pounds of unused drugs were collected last year in 882 drug take-back boxes making it easier for Pennsylvanians to dispose of unwanted medications.

The state’s Get-Help Now Hotline, available at 1-800-662-HELP, received about 36,800 calls and nearly half of the callers were connected directly to a treatment provider.

Despite some improvement, “Our work is not done,” said Jen Smith, secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “As we battle an epidemic in the midst of pandemic it is important for people to know that drug and alcohol treatment providers are still operating, and help is available.”

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