EDITORIAL: On the front lines of the opioid fight

York Dispatch
  • Public and private sector employees are faced with the growing addiction crisis.
  • Prison wardens once dealt with offenders, now deal with "patients."
  • Investment in community-wide treatment can provide support for addicts, families and professionals.

Most of the 1.5 million incarcerated Americans who abuse alcohol or drugs undergo cold-turkey detox behind bars, according to a recent Associated Press report. That means that, along with police officers, hospital workers, social workers, all emergency medical personnel and a plethora of public and private community-facing employees must now add a new — and weighty — duty to their job descriptions: Addiction treatment specialist.

Patrolman Steve Gebhart Jr., left, and Patrolman Michael Smith, of Penn Township Police Department, are shown following a press conference held by Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to honor police departments that have begun carrying naloxone and reversed nearly 650 opioid overdoses in little more than a year, at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, March 1, 2016. Gebhart and Smith have administered the antidote while on patrol. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Warden Edward E. Strawn has worked at Washington County Jail for over two decades. He puts it this way: “Twenty-five years ago, I dealt with criminals,” he told the Associated Press. “Today, I deal with patients.”

He went on to lament the diversion of resources from violent criminals to addicted drug offenders.

This is a staggering reality and one that illustrates just how cyclical and all-encompassing opioid addiction is — and how draining it is on municipal and other resources, including law enforcement, courts, jails, hospitals, family services and others.

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Those who answer the repeated calls should be lauded. And funding, like that outlined by Gov. Tom Wolf and legislators in the latest state budget, must be strategically used to cut through insurance and treatment bureaucracy. This week's announcement of funding for 20 counseling and treatment centers, including one in York City, is a good first step.

York County named location for opioid treatment center

Addicts often cycle from the streets to the hospital or jail and back again as they spiral downward in their illness. They often steal or commit other crimes beyond buying and selling drugs. And so law enforcement also has a new component to its responsibilities.

While well-deserved attention is often focused on families trying to navigate treatment services, we shouldn’t forget just how close to the front lines many public workers have become. For police officers, who are often first responders, it is now another part of their job description to revive overdose victims using the opioid reversal drug naloxone.

The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs honors police departments that have begun carrying naloxone and reversed nearly 650 opioid overdoses in little more than a year, at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, March 1, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Most of us can sympathize with having job duties added to an already long list in a day and age when companies are doing more with less, but the opioid crisis has created a new and incredibly high-stakes reality for emergency room personnel, first responders, police and others who are dealing with a tidal wave of addiction. Add to this the child welfare and social workers and you have a large population of workers who have entirely new and stressful component to their workaday world.

York County Prison a starting place for rehab

If an addict enters York County Prison, there are screening, evaluation and, in some cases, detox procedures and rehabilitation counseling in place to protect that person while in county custody, according to Clair Doll, deputy warden in charge of treatment at York County Prison. Doll said these procedures are meant to help start the rehabilitation process.

York County hopes to help addicts from OD to recovery

The goal is not only to take care of people's medical needs but to successfully reintegrate those convicted of crimes back into the community, he said in an email.

"Ultimately, individuals who address their substance abuse problems are less likely to commit crimes — an outcome that improves community safety and reduces taxpayer cost associated with the criminal justice system," Doll wrote.

This group of varied professionals, like Doll, have in essence been drafted onto the front lines of an epidemic we could never imagined two decades ago. They deserve not only our support, but our gratitude, as well.