As the pandemic rages, overdose deaths are on the rise in Pa. | Tuesday Morning Coffee

July 7, 2020 7:09 am

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Last December, when Gov. Tom Wolf renewed Pennsylvania’s ongoing opioids disaster declaration, the Keystone State could point to real progress in taming an overdose crisis that took the lives of 2,866 Pennsylvania in 2018, according to federal data.

At the time, Pennsylvania’s rate of opioid prescriptions was below the federal average and from 2017 to 2018, overdose deaths declined by 18 percent, the Capital-Star reported, citing administration data.

But as our colleague, Josuha Vaughn, at The Appeal reports, that progress is being undone, a product of the isolation demanded to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. And though the worst public health crisis in a century has shoved the opioid epidemic off the front pages, it hasn’t made it go away. It’s merely driven it underground, and people continue to die.

In Cumberland County, in suburban Harrisburg, for instance, overdose deaths fell by 40 percent between 2017 and 2018. In 2020, as the county’s unemployment rate shot up from 4 percent in March to 12 percent in April, overdose deaths also skyrocketed, Vaughn reports. The county is now on pace to reach — and perhaps overtake — the 2017 death rate, Vaughn reported.

“In this last month, I’ve lost five people who I was close to,” Carol Rostucher, the president of Philadelphia-based Angels in Motion, told The Appeal in late May. “I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before, never.”

Because of the isolation and depression brought on by the pandemic, people who are in recovery may begin using again. And it may also prompt people who are already using to up their intake, The Appeal reported.

More from The Appeal:

Because of social distancing guidelines, more people are also using drugs alone, which puts them at a higher risk of death. The drug naloxone has been found to reverse nearly 90 percent of overdoses, but someone must be on-site to deliver it to the user.

Rostucher said that while some restrictions on medication-assisted treatment have been relaxed because of COVID-19, many people are still required to visit a clinic every day or at least several times a week to get medication like methadone, a long-acting synthetic opioid prescribed to treat opioid use disorder.

According to Rostucher, many people who received medication-assisted treatment prior to COVID-19 were given bus fare as part of their treatment. That stopped when the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which operates most public transportation in Philadelphia, limited its services and stopped charging bus fare at the beginning of the pandemic.

But in May, SEPTA mostly resumed its normal services and began charging bus fares again, leaving many people in need of treatment scrambling to come up with the money needed to get to their clinic, she said.

And Pennsylvania isn’t alone.

According to The Appeal, which cited American Medical Association data, more than 30 states have seen a rise in opioid-related overdose deaths since the pandemic began. The AMA has since issued a brief urging states to take proactive steps to prevent overdose deaths, The Appeal reported.

Gov. Tom Wolf introduces his police reform plan during a news conference on Thursday, 6/4/20 (screen capture)

On Monday, the Wolf administration’s Opioids Command Center released what it’s calling a “strategic plan” to continue fighting the epidemic focusing on prevention, rescue, treatment, recovery and sustainability, the administration said in a statement.

The plan “aims to continue the successes of the Opioid Command Center as well as implement new policies to remove barriers and develop additional initiatives to address the ever-changing need for support and resources,” the administration said. And efforts will now be focused on fighting on other commonly abused substances, including stimulants.

“As the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, our primary goal is to ensure all Pennsylvanians have the opportunity to live healthy, substance-free lives,” DDAP Secretary Jen Smith said. “Through the development of the Command Center, Governor Wolf has provided critical staff and resources to help support our goal in the midst of the opioid epidemic. This roadmap will be an invaluable asset as we continue to navigate the epidemic and the rise of stimulant usage.”

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
Pro-Second Amendment lawmakers want to let you carry a gun during an emergency declaration — it’s currently illegal. Stephen Caruso has the details.

Gov. Tom Wolf has announced another $53 million in federal CARES Act aid to Pennsylvania childcare centers to help them ride out the pandemic, your humble newsletter author reports.

Correspondent Nick Field crunches the June 2 primary results in central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District to see what it says about the November general election match between Democrat Eugene DePasquale and incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Scott Perry.

Allegheny County will make $4.3 million from a new contract, paid on the backs of inmates and their families, to provide phone service at Allegheny County Jail, our partners at the Pittsburgh Current report.

A minority-owned company has brought a COVID-19 testing facility to Cheyney University, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning: Opinion regular Ana White warns against the dangers of performative allyship, and offers some tips to avoid it. And Shira Goodman of the Philly ADL has some advice for politicians who post controversial material to social media: You represent all your constituents, not just the ones who elected you.

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa. (U.S. House photo)

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16th District,
 received up to $1 million in paycheck protection loans for his car dealerships, the Inquirer reports.
Western Pennsylvania faces the threat of the invasive spotted lantern fly, the Tribune-Review reports.
Gov. Tom Wolf says he wants local governments to take the lead on the pandemic. But how much can they really do? The Morning Call takes up the story.
Vice President Mike Pence returns to Pennsylvania this week, taking a bus tour from Philadelphia to Lancaster, the Associated Press reports (via PennLive).

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

Recycling pick up has resumed in Philadelphia, WHYY-FM reports.
The PA Post looks at what it would take for Kanye West to get on the fall ballot in Pennsylvania.
Politico has moved Pa. from ‘toss up’ to ‘leans Dem,’ PoliticsPA reports.
Instances of coronavirus fraud are keeping local prosecutors plenty busy, reports.
An organization run by tax-and-spending hawk Grover Norquist also received PPP moneyRoll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House comes in at 1 p.m. today for what’s expected to be two days’ worth of voting sessions to finish up some odds and ends before formally beginning its summer recess. The Appropriations, Finance, and State Government committees all meet at the call of the chair today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to LION Publishing executive director and Temple journalism prof Chris Krewson, an old, old Friend O’The Blog who celebrates today. Congrats, pal. Enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s an absolute pop gem from the fantastic Chris Stamey. From his 1987 LP ‘It’s Alright,’ it’s When We’re Alone.’ Turn this one up loud, and roll the windows down.

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Well this is awesome news: Toronto and Edmonton have been named the NHL’s hub cities for the 2020 playoffs, MassLive reports.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.