Overdose Awareness Day remembers those who have lost their battle

HARRISBURG – Overdose is now one of the leading causes of accidental death in the nation and across Pennsylvania, with substance use disorder and drug overdose affecting all socio-economic groups, geographical regions and ages.

Today, Pennsylvanians are asked to participate in International Overdose Awareness Day, celebrated annually on Aug. 31, by remembering those who have lost their battle with substance use disorder.

“I hope that everyone in our state takes a moment today to remember those we have lost to overdoses, and those who are struggling with substance use disorder,” said Gov. Tom Wolf. “The ongoing work of our Opioid Command Center is making a difference in the lives of those suffering with substance use order and today is one day among many that we need to reflect on that work and the work of Pennsylvanians to overcome this disease.”

In recognition of Pennsylvanians lost, Wolf has ordered the commonwealth flag on all commonwealth facilities, public buildings and grounds to fly at half-staff. The commonwealth flag has flown at half-staff since Wednesday, March 11, in honor of the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic and should continue to fly at half-staff until further notice. The United States flag is to remain at full staff. 

“In support of all overdose victims, I encourage all Pennsylvanians to pause in reflection and make a commitment to our loved ones and our communities to help eliminate the stigma associated with SUD,” said Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith. “We must continue to share our struggles, losses and achievements. In doing so, we open the door for others to seek help and find hope.”

The Opioid Command Center, established in January 2018 when Gov. Wolf signed the first opioid disaster declaration, continues to meet each week to discuss the opioid crisis. The command center is staffed by personnel from 17 state agencies, spearheaded by the departments of Health and Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Earlier this month, the Opioid Command Center released its strategic plan, highlighting accomplishments to date and providing a roadmap for the continued work to help those with substance use disorder.

Efforts over the past several years, working with state agencies, local, regional and federal officials, have resulted in significant action to address the opioid crisis:

  • The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program has reduced opioid prescriptions by 34 percent and has virtually eliminated doctor shopping.
  • The number of people receiving high dosages of opioids (defined as greater than 90 morphine milligram equivalents per day) has dropped 53 percent since the PDMP launched in August 2016.
  • The Opioid Data Dashboard and Data Dashboard 2.0 has provided public-facing data regarding prevention, rescue and treatment.
  • 11 Pennsylvania Coordinated Medication Assisted Treatment (PacMAT) programs are serving as part of a hub-and-spoke model to provide evidence-based treatment to people where they live, with just under $26 million dedicated into the centers.
  • More than 45 Centers of Excellence, administered by the Department of Human Services, provide coordinated, evidence-based treatment to people with an opioid use disorder covered by Medicaid. The COEs have treated more than 32,500 people since first launching in 2016.
  • The waiver of birth certificate fees for those with opioid use disorder has helped more than 4,800 people, enabling easier entry into recovery programs.
  • A standing order signed by Dr. Rachel Levine in 2018 allowed EMS to leave behind more than 2,400 doses of naloxone.
  • Education has been provided to more than 6,600 prescribers through either online or face-to-face education.
  • 882 drug take-back boxes help Pennsylvanians properly dispose of unwanted drugs, including 178,540 pounds of unwanted drugs in 2019.
  • The Get Help Now Hotline received more than 39,000 calls, with nearly half of all callers connected directly to a treatment provider.
  • The state prison system has expanded its Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) program, which is viewed as a model program for other states.
  • A body scanner pilot project was successful in reducing overdoses and violent crime in a number of community corrections facilities. Body scanners are in place in more than 30 locations and are currently being expanded to additional facilities.
  • Several agencies have worked together to collaborate on the seizure and destruction of illicit opioids across Pennsylvania.       
  • Education and training on opioids have been provided to schools. Future plans are in place to make opioid education a standard component of school-based training.
  • The coordination with seven major commercial providers has expand access to naloxone and mental health care, while also working to make care more affordable.
  • Naloxone has been made available to first responders through the Commission on Crime and Delinquency, with more than 63,400 kits made available and close to 12,700 saves through that program. More than half of those saves, 6,633, occurred in 2019.
  • EMS have administered close to 42,300 doses of naloxone and more than 10,000 doses were made available to members of the public during the state’s naloxone distribution last year.

Overdose deaths are preventable, and lives can be saved through awareness, prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery support. Through the combined efforts of state leaders, advocates, and public health and safety professionals, our state saw an 18 percent decrease in overdose deaths from 2017 to 2018.