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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declares opioid crisis a public health disaster

Ben Schmitt
| Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, 3:39 p.m.
Screenshot from a livestream of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's press conference about the opioid crisis Wednesday in Harrisburg.
Screenshot from a livestream of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's press conference about the opioid crisis Wednesday in Harrisburg.

Gov. Tom Wolf took unprecedented action Wednesday in issuing a disaster declaration to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic devastating Pennsylvania families on a daily basis.

The public health declaration is the first of its kind in the state, officials said.

“I do not take this action lightly, but we know that this crisis has taken far too many lives, broken too many families and communities, and has gone on for far too long,” Wolf said during a press conference in Harrisburg. “We cannot allow it to continue.”

Data shared by Wolf on Wednesday shows 5,260 Pennsylvanians died from drug overdose in 2017. A year earlier, more than 4,600 residents died of overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those that we have lost are not just numbers,” he said.

The declaration relaxes some regulations that have been roadblocks to help addicted residents and their families. It will expire in 90 days as required by the state constitution, but can be extended.

Immediately, the declaration allows EMS workers to leave behind the opioid reversal drug naloxone when they respond to an overdose and the subject refuses to go to an emergency room.

“This declaration gives EMS agencies another tool in terms in saving lives,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania's acting secretary of health and physician general.

She said naloxone has saved more than 5,700 lives over the past three years.

The declaration also gives registered nurses and nurse practitioners the ability to begin admitting patients for drug treatment without doctors being present.

Wolf's action creates an Opioid Command Center at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, to foster better coordination among state police and departments of Health, and Drug and Alcohol, and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

Seven other states, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia, have already made similar declarations.

Other components of Wolf's actions include:

• Expanding access within state government to data from the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program

• Allowing for the immediate, temporary rescheduling of all fentanyl derivatives to align with the federal DEA schedule

• Allowing pharmacists to partner with other organizations to increase access to naloxone

• Waiving annual licensing requirements for high-performing drug and alcohol treatment facilities

• Waiving fees for birth certificates for addicts to increase access to treatment.

Levine said the declaration allows the health department to make overdoses and cases in which babies are born in withdrawal reportable to the state when people survive. Most overdose data is available only when a death is involved, she said, describing the opioid problem as the “worst public health crisis we have faced in Pennsylvania in more than a generation.”

“It's critical to emphasize that addiction and opioid use disorders are diseases, not a moral failing,” Levine said. “Treatment works. Recovery is possible.”

The governor acknowledged the disaster emergency status is not a silver bullet but another way to try and fight the opioid epidemic.

“The numbers again are staggering, the impact is devastating,” he said. “We cannot allow it to continue.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, or via Twitter @Bencschmitt.

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