Top state health officials visited York Hospital to raise awareness of a rehabilitation effort in the county to assist those suffering from opioid abuse, a rapidly growing problem that state Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine calls “by far the worst public crisis we face in Pennsylvania, and, you could argue, in the nation.”

Levine and Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs acting secretary Jennifer Smith  spoke at WellSpan York Hospital about the “warm handoff” initiative, which aims to immediately send overdose survivors into treatment.

'Warm handoff': Warm handoff is a program started late last year by the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs that attempts to promote a “firm, warm” facilitated patient referral from a medical facility to a substance treatment facility, according to Levine.

Smith added that compliance with the program is voluntary but said “survivors have access to treatment resources if they choose to accept them.”

Emergency responders will meet with a survivor shortly after the event at the emergency department to seek their trust, Smith said.

York Hospital is the only area hospital participating in the “warm handoff” initiative, which started at the hospital in December.

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The York County Drug and Alcohol Commission has interacted with approximately 60 individuals, and of those, 14 have sought treatment, according to Smith.

The admittance rate of nearly 25 percent might sound paltry to some, said Smith, but she commended the results as successful.

“That’s tremendous work," she said.

Levine reported there were 99 deaths from overdoses in York County in 2015, and last year the number rose to 123. Of the 123 deaths, 116 were heroin-related.

"The statistics are startling," she said.

According to York County Coroner Pam Gay, there have been 15 confirmed overdose deaths so far this year, with another 29 drug deaths suspected.

"We haven't reached the end of March," Gay said. "It's the worst it's ever been."

Plans are in place to have Hanover Hospital, Gettysburg Hospital and Memorial Hospital join the program, in that order, according to Audrey Gladfelter, administrator at the York/Adams Drug and Alcohol Commission.

Levine said there were more than 3,500 overdose deaths in the state last year, amounting to nearly 10 people a day.

Narcan: “Many more people would have died,” Levine said, were it not for doctors and emergency personnel that have increased their supplies of naloxone, or Narcan, which reverses the effects of opiates on receptors in the brain. The drug is usually administered nasally. Police throughout York County began carrying naloxone in 2015.

“It’s an amazing substance,” Levine said, touting its lack of addictive elements and adverse side effects.

Levine mentioned the two statewide standing orders she signed in 2015, known as Act 139. The first order expanded access to Narcan to state and municipal police and fire departments, which she said has saved more than 300 lives. The second standing order expanded access for the general public to obtain this life-saving drug through a prescription.

Both orders require people who have been administered the drug to be admitted to an emergency department for medical treatment and then to receive a “warm handoff” for addiction treatment if they want.

'Break this cycle': Levine said the guided process from hospital bed to treatment center can make overdose survivors more likely to seek treatment.

"We really need to break this cycle," she said.

Dr. Erik Kochert, a doctor at York Hospital, said he was "confident" the hospital could save lives under the program.

"Every day, we see the devastating impact (of opiates) on our communities," he said. While doctors are looking at alternative treatments to the addictive drugs, Kochert said, "warm handoff" is a good intervention strategy to get overdose survivors on the right track.

"This is their teachable moment," he said, "a chance to turn their life around."

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