As the last year of this decade is underway, and the opioid epidemic continues to claim lives and destroy families, we are encouraged to share what we hope is a sign of progress — a ray of hope.
While one death is still one too many, and the fight against this public health emergency is far from over, promising new data shows the number of opioid drug deaths — while still on the rise in other jurisdictions — is on the decline in Cumberland County.
In fact, there was a 40-percent reduction in the number of opioid deaths in Cumberland County this past year — 52 deaths in 2018 compared to 86 in 2017. Put another way, 34 fewer lives were lost in our county to the opioid epidemic last year than the year before. The 2018 Cumberland County opioid death toll was also lower than 2016.
In cooperation with our state and community partners, Cumberland County has been engaged in a comprehensive effort to address this crisis. And, it looks like those efforts are, at least, beginning to show results.
Of particular note, in collaboration with our court system, and with the aid of initial pilot grant funding from the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), Cumberland County last year launched the first Opioid Intervention Court (OIC) in Pennsylvania. It is continuing this year with general fund dollars we approved as part of our 2019 county budget.
Early signs indicate the OIC, the latest example of a specialized “problem solving court” and, perhaps, a model for other jurisdictions to consider is making a big difference in both saving lives and costs in our county.
Under the supervision of Common Pleas Judge Jessica Brewbaker, the OIC is working to save lives by getting accused offenders with substance use disorders, from the time of their first contact with the criminal justice system, into supervised treatment. The regimen for those accepted into the program includes immediate screening, detox as needed, supervision by mandated recovery groups, frequent judicial contact, drug testing and compliance monitoring.
So far, among the first 76 participants in the program, none has fatally overdosed.
But, not only have drug deaths declined with the implementation of the OIC, and the start of a Vivitrol initiative for offenders with opioid use disorders, we’ve also seen a decline in our jail population as more and more non-violent drug offenders are being supervised and treated outside of jail.
Just a little over a year ago, with the opioid epidemic escalating, we were preparing to open a new cell block as our county’s prison population swelled to over 450. Today, the average daily inmate population is in the range of 350, negating the need for the opening of another cell block and averting the substantial expense of staffing a new cell block.
Has Cumberland County discovered the magical silver bullet to eradicating this epidemic? We can’t say that. Has Cumberland County turned the corner on this public health crisis? We certainly hope so.
But, what we do know is that — with the OIC and all the other steps taken, including the important work of our county’s drug task force and our local police in cracking down on those peddling the illicit and deadly poisons of heroin and fentanyl in our communities — there are solid, preliminary signs we’re making progress.
A “warm hand off” program is getting underway at all three of Cumberland County’s hospitals where certified recovery specialists will be available when overdose victims are being released from the emergency room. Our police and EMS first responders are all equipped with Naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote medication that has literally saved hundreds of lives in our county.
And, the good news is that our county’s citizens, following nearly 80 opioid awareness presentations attended by many of our citizens at the community level, understand that this is not just a fight for government alone. One sure sign is the concerted, proactive effort of our constituents in helping to make sure unused prescription drugs don’t end up in the wrong hands. To date, nearly 24,000 pounds — a whopping 12 tons — of unused prescriptions have been dropped off for proper disposal at our county’s 21 drug take back boxes located at our police departments, the courthouse and other sites throughout the county.
Another sign is the individual initiative of family and friends to encourage those in the grips of addiction to seek help before it’s too late. And that help is readily available by contacting the state’s Heroin and Opioid Addiction hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or, if you live in Cumberland or Perry counties, the Cumberland/Perry Drug and Alcohol Commission at 717-240-6300.
Together, the latest data shows, it sure looks like we’re making progress in this fight to save lives. We can only hope we’re beginning to see the light at the end of a very long tunnel. For more information, visit www.ccpa.net/opioids.
Vince DiFilippo, Jim Hertzler and Gary Eichelberger serve as Cumberland County Commissioners.