2020 overdose deaths increase by 16% in Pa., 29% nationwide


LEMOYNE, Pa. (WHTM) — The number of overdose deaths is now out.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 29% increase nationwide.

And a 16-percent increase in Pennsylvania.

Public health and recovery experts say they’re not surprised because this was the convergence of two epidemics but the numbers are alarming, nonetheless.

After Gov. Tom Wolf declared an opioid disaster in 2018, the overdose numbers were initially trending in the right direction.

“From 2017 to 2019, we saw a nearly 20% reduction in fatal overdoses here in Pennsylvania and then COVID hit and we knew we were going to see those numbers going back up,” Ray Barishansky, deputy director for health preparedness and community protection, said.

New CDC data shows 5,172 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania in 2020, up 16% from the previous year.

Barishansky says there are a number of reasons for that.

“We understand that people were afraid to call 911 during this time. People were afraid to congregate. People were afraid to go to the hospital,” Barishansky said.

And many people struggling with addiction were also isolated, which can be a trigger to use.

“I feel that treatment saves lives and recovery fills the cracks so that we don’t have people relapsing. We’re working to cut down those relapse rates,” Sherry Clouser, deputy director of JFT Recovery and Veteran Support Services, said.

Experts don’t necessarily think the problem is more people are using, but that it is deadly drugs like fentanyl are being mixed in.

“When someone gets it they want to make money so they cut it and the things that we’re cutting it with today are scarier than the drug itself,” Clouser said.

JFT is working with seven hospitals in Cumberland and Dauphin counties for its warm handoff program.

“It’s a peer-to-peer relationship breaking down those barriers to get people into treatment. Now we know that we run between 78% and 82% of entrants into treatment,” Clouser said.

They’re also doing police diversion programs, trying to connect people with addictions to treatment options before they overdose.

“Treatment works and recovery is possible. And people in Pennsylvania need to know that,” Barishansky said.

Barishansky says the opioid command center has continued to meet every week during the pandemic.

He hopes those efforts will bring the numbers back down this year.

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