Lancaster County officials are cautiously optimistic that Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration Wednesday of a state of emergency — a 90-day effort to try to get a handle on the heroin and opioid epidemic that annually claims thousands of lives in Pennsylvania — will help local efforts to combat addiction.
“A lot of good work happens locally,” Alice Yoder, director of community health for Lancaster General Health/Penn Medicine, said Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s a matter of listening to the experts, the people who provide the services, and coming together to determine what we need to do locally, and what we need to do more of, to address the issue,” she said.
Yoder also chairs the Lancaster County Joining Forces Coalition, a cooperative effort among groups representing health care, law enforcement, treatment and awareness efforts in the region.
“I was excited, number one, that he decided to declare it an emergency, so that it gets more of a microscope held to the issue,” she said. That, she said, “will hopefully help to identify some more creative solutions that we can implement in the future.”
Measures to cut through red tape and connect addicts to services more quickly “is very exciting,” she added.
In Lancaster County, 165 people died from drug overdoses last year — most of them using prescription painkillers, heroin or fentanyl, according to county coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni.
That’s up from 117 people who died from overdoses in 2016 and 84 overdose deaths in 2015.
Diamantoni said Wednesday there have been some local deaths from overdoses this year, although the number was not immediately available.
Yoder said Wolf’s announcement offers “many opportunities for improvement” in the methods for dealing with drug-use and overdose issues.
Ramping up the state’s toll-free addiction hotline, 1-800-622-HELP, is a big one, she said. Since it was launched in 2016, the number has been plagued with accessibility issues, Yoder said.
District Attorney Craig Stedman said law enforcement was largely absent from the governor’s speech. So, while he applauds any steps taken to deal with the epidemic, “we do not see a shift in our approach from that perspective.”
Stedman says the problem must be tackled from many angles.
“Just as we are not going to simply arrest our way out of this problem — and absolutely need outreach, prevention, and enhanced treatment — we cannot just simply treat our way out of it either,” he said. “It really will take a multi-faceted approach.”
That includes aggressively prosecuting and punishing “predator drug dealers,” he added. “We need to send the message that the penalty for pushing drugs for profit will outweigh the financial ‘reward.’”
Randy Gockley, director of the county Emergency Management Agency, said he would wait for a briefing from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency before commenting on the governor’s action.
“I was hoping to hear something about efforts for prevention,” Yoder said. “I’m a little disappointed.”
Treatment is vital, she said, but the state also could assist with school programs to prevent students from becoming addicts in the first place.
“They need to learn the risks,” she said.
No real change
Gail Groves Scott, manager of the Substance Use Disorders Institute at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and a Lancaster Township resident, called Wolf’s declaration “a disappointment to those who were hoping it would bring real change.”
Scott said the governor should have included measures to decriminalize syringe service programs, fund community-level recovery supports and wellness groups “that engage users where they are,” and eliminate discrimination in recovery housing, the justice system and licensed treatment programs for people needing opioid use disorder medications.