Westmoreland officials learn of lauded drug lifesaving Project Lazarus

Debra Erdley
| Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, 11:33 p.m.

Alarmed by the growing toll of drug overdose deaths, officials in Westmoreland County are looking south, to a North Carolina county known for moonshine and as the birthplace of NASCAR, for a solution to the problem.

Members of the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force say they want to explore whether a public health model known as Project Lazarus could be effective here, where drug overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 22 in 2002 to 86 last year.

Speaking Wednesday afternoon at a forum in Westmore­land County Community College, Fred Wells Brason, founder of Project Lazarus, said the community-based template developed to battle prescription drug overdoses in Wilkes County in 2007 has proven effective elsewhere.

Local officials believe prescription pain medications can be a gateway to heroin, which figured in 26 of the 86 overdose deaths last year and 32 of the 72 such deaths to date in 2014.

Brason said he was stunned when he learned the scope of the prescription drug problem in Wilkes County in 2004 when he was working as program coordinator and chaplain at Wilkes Regional Medical Center Hospice.

“It was not on my radar screen, but it hit me when pain medication started disappearing from the hospice,” Brason said, explaining that prescription drugs had become a problem throughout the rural county.

Later he learned that the Centers for Disease Control had pegged Wilkes County's drug overdose rate of 46.6 per 100,000 residents as the third highest in the nation.

What followed was an effort at the local level through a series of community forums, education and coalition building that focused on framing the problem as a public health issue. Changing the public mindset about prescription drug use and abuse was a challenge, Brason said.

He said Project Lazarus decided to use the term “medication” rather than “drug” in its literature and training to alleviate the stigma attached to overdoses, many of which are accidental.

“The way the federal government looks at (drug overdoses) is as poisoning. People who took the drug didn't intend to die,” Brason said.

Education efforts focused on hammering home four instructions regarding prescription medication: take correctly, store securely, dispose properly and never share.

Local coalitions built around schools, churches, civic groups, law enforcement and the medical community helped provide education and intervention training, including the use of naloxone, the overdose rescue medication.

Hospital emergency rooms developed strict protocols to monitor and limit the distribution of pain medications and flag so-called “frequent fliers,” who regularly hit them seeking painkillers.

Disposal sites were set up to reduce the amount of unused drugs in the community, while support programs for patients with chronic pain were enhanced.

The group also developed a kit with two doses of naloxone in a nasal spray that could be easily administered to those at risk of dying from an overdose.

“School nurses want it. Universities want RAs (resident assistants) to have it because students have died in dorm rooms. And every enrollee in drug treatment is given a kit,” Brason said.

He said the concerted local effort worked for Wilkes County.

“In 2011, you had not one overdose death,” Brason told the group.

Brason said he is traveling across the state to meet with lawmakers and officials from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania who hope to design a statewide strategy to address overdose deaths.

Dirk Matson, Westmoreland County's Director of Human Services and co-chairman of the drug task force, said he'll take Brason's ideas back to the local steering committee.

“We need to draw people into this battle one group at a time,” Matson said.

County Commissioner Tyler Courtney, who attended the seminar, said he believes there is a lot of misinformation about drug overdoses.

“This is an ongoing concern in a lot of communities. If we don't address this issue now, we'll have to spend a lot more on it later,” Courtney said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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