Wolf: Overdose deaths dropped 18 percent in 2018

Pennsylvania’s fight against the opioid crisis appeared to bear fruit in 2018 as it saw a decline in the number of overdose deaths.

Gov. Tom Wolf has announced that overdose deaths in Pennsylvania went down by 18 percent from 2017 to 2018, dropping from 5,377 to 4,413.

“You don’t see a mission accomplished sign here,” Wolf said at a Capitol news conference. “While we’re proud of the progress we’ve made on the opioid epidemic, this is a small step toward a big process we have to address moving forward.”

Wolf also announced programs to continue to combat the epidemic - a grant program for doctors and a helpline for families in which a member other than a parent cares for a young relative - and two more Naloxone giveaways on Sept. 18 and 25.

Last year marks the first year in at least five years overdose deaths have gone down in Pennsylvania, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

From 2016 to 2017, Pennsylvania overdose deaths went up by nearly 17 percent, according to a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In 2017, Pennsylvania ranked 13th in the nation for highest rate of overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That same year, Wolf declared a state of emergency surrounding the opioid crisis that he has since renewed six times.

Since first declaring the state of emergency, Wolf’s administration has started a substance abuse hotline and more closely monitored how often doctors prescribe addictive medications, among other initiatives.

The state is using federal grants meant to combat the opioid crisis to give student loan coverage to medical professionals who work with people with addiction, particularly those who choose to work in areas with high concentrations of overdose deaths.

Grants worth nearly $4.8 million have been awarded to 92 medical professionals so far, including Dr. Nicole Witman, a mental health and substance abuse psychiatrist practicing in Dauphin County. She went through 14 years of higher education and had a portion of her loans paid for by the grant.

“This has reduced a financial barrier and lifted an emotional burden on me,” Whitman said. “I can now continue to battle the opioid crisis in my hometown of Harrisburg.”

State Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller and Aging Secretary Robert Torres announced the “KinConnector” helpline (1-866-KIN-2111), a phone line that will direct families that care for a young relative, including grandparents raising their grandchildren because of the opioid crisis, to resources.

The helpline from a suggestion heard on a listening tour with “grandfamilies,” Torres said. In response, he said the state also will launch a website with resources later this year.

Two giveaways for naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses, are scheduled for September 18 and 25 and more details will be announced at a later time. The state’s last naloxone giveaway in December distributed 5,000 naloxone kits.

The state’s Drug and Alcohol Services Secretary Jennifer Smith said although opioid deaths have decreased, there have been more deaths caused by stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine.

“While today is a great to celebrate how far we’ve come, it’s also a great day to recommit ourselves to doing more to address this epidemic that has destroyed and devastated so many families,” Wolf said.