Federal report calls drug abuse a public health crisis

Margarita Cambest
  • York County heroin deaths are on track to exceed 2015 total.
  • The state health department has distributed overdose medication naloxone to 128 public high schools.
  • In York County, 185 overdose victims have been saved with naloxone this year, the coroner says.

If York heroin-related deaths keep up their current pace, the county is on track to exceed the number of deaths confirmed last year.

It’s a trend felt not just in Pennsylvania, but nationally. And for the first time, the U.S. surgeon general is calling the drug abuse epidemic sweeping the nation a public health crisis, labeling addiction a disease that needs more treatment and less jail time.

“Everyone has a role to play in addressing substance misuse and substance-use disorders as a public health issue,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned in a report released Nov. 17.

In this file photo, state Department of Health Secretary Dr. Karen Murphy visits Northeastern High School in 2016 to announce the department’s distribution of naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids like heroin and prescription pain medicine, to 128 public schools.

It calls on coordination between substance-abuse providers and the rest of the health care system to improve the quality, effectiveness and safety of substance-abuse care.

York County-based Pennsylvania Counseling Services recently received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Health to do just that — create a central hub to treat all stages of addiction.

The report also asks public officials to implement already-existing community-based prevention programs and policies and ask for future research to guide the new public health approach to substance-use disorders.That approach is already ongoing in Delta, where neighbors have joined forces to create an anti-drug task force, teaming up with local officials to turn in drug dealers and hosting recreational activities to keep kids off the streets.

Drug overdose deaths limited in Pennsylvania to just Philadelphia, Montgomery and Allegheny counties in 1990 have grown exponentially in the last decade, leading both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  and the Pennsylvania Department of Health  to call attention to the problem. The DOH recently distributed the drug-overdose treatment naloxone to 128 public high schools.

Coroner: Drug-related deaths down, heroin deaths up

“I do think we’re probably going to trend a little higher this year,” York County Coroner Pam Gay said. “Were it not for Narcan (naloxone), we would have probably another 160 deaths.”

Gay said 185 people have been saved with the overdose treatment since January.

Heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled nationally between 2002 and 2013. According to the CDC, the drug does not discriminate. Its use has increased for men and women, most age groups and all income levels.

Of the 99 drug-related deaths in York reported to the Philadelphia Drug Enforcement Agency in 2015, 65 could be traced to heroin, up one from 2014 despite a decrease in overall drug deaths. With 50 confirmed heroin-related deaths so far this year and 14 suspected, Gay said the county is on track to meet or beat last year’s figures, which include those blamed on heroin and heroin mixed with other drugs.

Almost half of those who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, according to the CDC. Prescription pain medicine deaths, Gay said, are categorized separately. So far there are less than 50 this year in York County, although the numbers have not been officially tallied yet.

“We definitely would be having a lot more deaths than what we have, but we’re still in the middle of a very big problem," Gay said.