Opioid overdose deaths among Latinos are surging nationwide, and Lancaster does not trail far behind.
“Every few hours I get a phone call that another person has overdosed,” says Jose Oscar Vazquez, president of HOPE Ministries and Community Services, which provides social-service information and referrals, primarily to Spanish-speaking clients in southwest Lancaster.
“I’ve lost count of how many funerals I’ve attended of people who have overdosed,” he says. “These are people who are participating in treatment programs. It’s hard to understand.”
Several weeks ago, Vazquez officiated at the funerals of three men who died just days apart on the same city street.
“This is more than just numbers,” says Vazquez. “The government is doing their job the best they can but we have to do more than that,” he says.
The surge in overdoses, opioid addiction, the stigma associated with individuals battling substance use and mental health was the focus of a health forum, “Opioid in Pa: A Generation in Crisis,” held Wednesday at the YWCA Lancaster.
“This is the first in a series of forums to address the health concerns of not just the Latino population, but the community at large. This crisis is affecting the whole nation,” said Norman Bristol Colon, chairperson of the Pennsylvania Latino Convention.
The forum was a collaborative initiative between HOPE Ministries and the Pennsylvania Latino Convention.
“The Latino community across the state has been really impacted by the opioid crisis,” said Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Jennifer Smith, who spoke during the event.
“But they are not alone. The opioid epidemic has been described as the worst public health crisis in Pennsylvania. Too many Pennsylvanians have died of prescription opioid and heroin overdose,” says Smith.
Keynote speaker Jason Snyder, regional director of outpatient services in Eastern Pennsylvania for Pinnacle Treatment Centers, agrees.
“If we are going to keep people alive, we have to do something different,” says Snyder.
Addiction, he says, can and will affect everyone. “It affects us all and I can demonstrate that very fact.”
Snyder grew up the oldest of three boys in western Pennsylvania. “We were pretty much the typical, blue collar family. Our parents provided us every opportunity to succeed,” he says.
Drug addiction, Snyder recalls, was not something his family talked about and it was unheard off within their circle of friends.
“Although we didn’t say it, the thought was that it could not happen to families like ours. It happened to “those people” – whatever those people looked like,” Snyder says.
How did opioids affect his family?
Addiction, Snyder says, was not supposed to be part of their story but completely changed the course of where they expected to be.
“My brother Todd spiraled deep into a heroin addiction and overdosed at age 28. My family knew for some time that death was a possibility but didn’t think it would actually happen.” Snyder says. “We were in shock but persevered and moved on.”
Then it happened again. Approximately two and a half years later, his brother, Josh, also died of a heroin overdose at age 25.
“Addiction knows no boundaries. Rich or poor, good families or broken families, it cuts across all demographic,” Snyder says.
Snyder himself became addicted to prescription drugs. Oxycodone and Oxymorphone, he said, were his drugs of choice. These medications are used to manage severe pain.
“I was not being prescribed, though. I was actively seeking them out from connections, other people who were getting them legitimately,” Snyder says.
His path, however, turned out to be much different from that of his brothers. He decided to attend a 12-step recovery program where he was encourage to seek treatment.
“Today I identify as a person in long-term recovery from the disease of addiction, which for me means I have not have a drink or drugs in more than seven years,’ he explains.
Snyder is a strong supporter of the use of meds and counseling to assist treatment.
“Meds will keep people alive but the best way to normalize the brain is to use them appropriately under the guidance of doctors,” he says.
“I’m a huge proponent of using every tool available to keep people alive and put them on the right path to recovery. This is a shifting landscape so if we are going to reduce the number of deaths we need to approach this differently.”
On January 10, 2018, Governor Wolf signed a 90-day statewide disaster declaration to help fight the heroin and opioid overdose epidemic. The declaration, Smith says, is saving lives.
“It’s been renewed every 90 days. Since the governor first signed the heroin and opioid disaster declaration, 16 state agencies have worked together to fight the opioid epidemic and have made significant progress. It allows us to come together and bring all resources to focus solely on this crisis,” she says.
The Department of Health and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, for example, convened a task force that developed guidelines for 11 medical specialties on how to use opioids safely and effectively in the treatment of pain, while reducing a person’s risk of developing an addiction.
“Medication assisted treatment is sometimes necessary to keep a person alive. It’s important to recognize addiction for what it is – a disease. It’s important to understand that these are medications, not just drugs,” Smith says.
“That’s why education is so important,” says Vazquez. “People need to understand what addiction is, how it affects families and seek treatment.”