Awareness of opioid crisis on the rise in South Hills communities
For the second year in a row, a crowd gathered at the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Brentwood on a late summer evening. The 70 people present said the Serenity Prayer together and lit candles for those addicted to opioids and those who died from overdoses.
It was the second vigil organized by the church and the John F. Slater Funeral Home for International Opioid Overdose Awareness Day, which falls each year on Aug. 31. Both were organized, funeral community outreach coordinator Chris Crompton said, after funeral home staffers took notice of the growing number of services being held for victims of overdoses.
Neighboring funeral homes, she said, have observed the same.
“It’s an epidemic,” she said. “And it certainly affects our county, our community, our family and our friends.”
The South Hills area is not immune to the public health crisis gripping the United States. So far this year, police in Baldwin Borough, Baldwin Township, Brentwood, Whitehall and Pleasant Hills have responded to a combined 65 opioid overdoses, nine of which resulted in death.
Records for Jefferson Hills were not immediately available.
Several police department heads said most of the overdoses officers responded to were caused by heroin and not pharmaceuticals. Police also said overdoses in the South Hills communities do not seem to affect any one race, gender or sex more than any other.
“It’s all walks of life,” Pleasant Hills police Chief Brian Finnerty said. “We’ve had people from 70 years old to young kids and young teenagers.”
In Pleasant Hills and Baldwin Township, the number of overdoses police responded to has declined since 2016. Pleasant Hills police reported 27 overdoses in 2016, 12 in 2017 and seven so far this year, while Baldwin Township reported six in 2016, one in 2017 and two so far this year.
Baldwin Borough police reported 42 overdoses in 2016, 52 in 2017, and 33 so far this year. A total of 29 overdoses were reported between Jan. 1, 2017, and May 8, 2018, in Whitehall. Records for previous years were not immediately available.
In Brentwood, police responded to 52 overdoses in 2016, 55 in 2017, and 16 so far in 2018. Brentwood police Chief Adam Zeppuhar said he was happy to report a lower number for 2018, but suspected it might not mean fewer people are using opioids.
Police said a growing number of individuals may be getting prescriptions for the overdose-reversing medication naloxone and therefore relying less on police for its administration.
The drug has been carried by officers throughout the South Hills for the past several years. Police have mounted additional efforts to combat the crisis as well. Baldwin Borough, Brentwood and Pleasant Hills police, for example, maintain a medication dropbox in their headquarters, with the former partnering with Jefferson Hospital for a needle exchange program.
Two Brentwood officers belong to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Drug Task Force, through which they investigate drug sales at the local level. Officers also assist nearby agencies with investigations of their own through the task force.
Brentwood additionally maintains an anonymous tip line through its website.
Both Whitehall and Baldwin Borough police also belong to the Baldwin-Whitehall School District’s drug and alcohol task force, which formed last September in hopes of educating students and their parents.
South Hills residents are becoming more aware of the crisis, police say.
“People now are not seeing the junkie and the crack house,” said Baldwin Borough police Chief Michael Scott, “but they’re seeing sons and daughters.”
It’s a rise in visibility that Krystal Finkbeiner spoke of positively. Since her brother’s death from an opioid overdose in 2017, Finkbeiner, of South Park, has spoken about her family’s experience publicly in hopes of raising awareness for drug addiction.
She spoke at the vigil in Brentwood in August, and in July organized a run for recovery in South Park that drew 200 participants and raised more than $20,000 for the nonprofit drug rehabilitation group Shatterproof.
“People that have this disease need to know that it’s OK,” Finkbeiner said.
Matthew Guerry is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.