As state health officials worked to combat one pandemic, another public health crisis was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Pennsylvanians, state officials confirmed Thursday, acknowledging that the commonwealth saw an increase in opioid overdose deaths in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pennsylvania recorded 4,880 opioid overdose deaths in 2020, an increase of 422 deaths from the 2019 tally of 4,458. The increase offsets the progress the Wolf administration’s Opioid Operational Command Center had made between 2018 and 2020, which saw a 20 percent decrease in opioid deaths.
“We are seeing a different picture,” state Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith told reporters.
Smith noted that reported opioid overdoses remain high in Pike, Cambria, Allegheny and Lebanon counties, despite collective efforts to reach individuals in need of services, and to get Narcan and Naloxone in the hands of first responders as well as the public.
In 2020, Pennsylvania logged 18,000 overdose reversals, giving individuals an “amazing opportunity to have a second chance at recovery,” Smith said.
Despite the closures and other challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s opioid command center, which is staffed by 13 different state agencies, “hasn’t let up” in its fight against opioid overdoses, according to Smith.
Smith said its focus has shifted to making sure people in need can access resources and treatment during the pandemic.
To accommodate those shifts, Smith said the command center has relied on local and state partners such as the Pennsylvania State Police, veterans affairs groups and contracts with 50 community-based organizations to reach those in need of treatment.
“We have doubled down our efforts,” Deputy Secretary of Health Preparedness and Community Protection Ray Barishansky said.
“We look at this as a crisis,” Barishansky , who heads the opioids command center, added. “Those are numbers we are attuned to and fixed to everyday”