Loved ones of those killed by opioid overdoses first raised the alarm here in 2014 in social media posts and grassroots activism: Heroin, a bliss-inducing, savagely addictive and dangerous drug had made a return and was felling victims, too many of them young and full of promise.
Erie County leaders were quick to respond, forming a task force to fight the epidemic. Amid the rapidly mounting death toll statewide, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, aided by the Legislature, took aim at the crisis on every relevant front.
They made widely available the overdose-reversal drug naloxone; reformed opioid prescribing practices; and established a command center to coordinate state agencies’ responses. They beefed up resources for and access to treatment, and offered support to families shattered by the dysfunction addiction breeds.
For years, despite the mobilization, thousands continued to die in an epidemic that fueled not just crime and death, but child neglect and economic loss. But at last comes good news.
Wolf announced Aug. 1 that drug deaths in Pennsylvania dropped 18 percent between 2017 and 2018 from 5,377 to 4,413. That is no reason to declare victory, but the decline in drug deaths, the first in at least five years statewide, is worthy of celebration, especially given that deaths from 2016 to 2017 had increased by 17 percent.
The statewide decline in overdose deaths is mirrored in Erie County, which saw its first decrease in years in 2018 when drug overdose deaths dropped from a historic high of 124 in 2017 to 83 in 2018. As reporter Madeleine O’Neill detailed in July, the county is on track in 2019 to witness another steep decline.
As of July 17, Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook had seen 34 drug-related deaths in 2019, compared with 43 drug-related deaths that had occurred in 2018 by July 2, 2018. He said most are linked to the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Divided government in this state impedes effective action on a host of pressing issues. Gains made in the opioid fight reflect the Wolf administration’s nimble, proactive leadership and represent a welcome triumph of effective bipartisan cooperation that citizens deserve.
As Wolf noted, this is no time to declare “mission accomplished.” His administration and allies in this fight must press forward and continue to identify new tools. For example, the state is now offering student loan debt coverage to medical professionals who work with those with addiction. More distributions of free naloxone are scheduled in September.
Even as the opioid scourge beats a welcome retreat, other familiar illegal drugs capable of sowing violence, addiction and death — stimulants, especially methamphetamine — are making a return, something reflected here in both police reports and Cook’s records.
Don’t stand down.
— The Erie Times-News