Stories we followed in 2018: Fighting back against opioid addiction

A year that began with record overdose deaths also saw an unprecedented response.

  • Brett Sholtis

Brett Sholtis / Transforming Health

A paramedic and EMT transport someone from an ambulance to the hospital.

The year began with the release of a grim estimate: Pennsylvania saw more than 5,200 overdose deaths the previous year.

That number was compiled based on county coroners’ estimates, and would prove to fall short of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s tally: 5,463 deaths.

With the streets flooded with a deadly mix of heroin and fentanyl, an average of 10 Pennsylvanians were dying each day of an overdose.

But 2018 was also the year that Pennsylvania fought back.

In January, the governor declared the opioid crisis to be a disaster emergency, a move that freed up resources and set into motion a massive response.

Counties launched their own efforts, suing Purdue Pharma and other companies that produced prescription opioids.

Some district attorneys charged drug dealers with manslaughter for selling lethal doses.  It’s been a controversial move, but one that Pennsylvania District Attorney Association president John Adams, who is the DA in Berks County,  said is helping to keep heroin and fentanyl off the streets.

“It finally dawned on us that we need to use this statute as a tool in our toolbox to combat the drug dealers who are distributing the dangerous drugs that cause death.”

Brett Sholtis / Transforming Health

Brittney Webster stands for a portrait outside of a state health center in Carlisle where she got naloxone provided by the state.

By September, the Wolf administration secured a $55.9 million federal grant to fund its efforts.

In December, the state Department of Health handed out more than 5,000 kits of naloxone, a drug that can stop someone from dying of an overdose if administered quickly.

For people like 28-year-old Brittney Webster, naloxone has been a vital resource. Webster, who is in recovery and helps others who are in recovery, said naloxone helps people to live one more day while they fight against opioid addiction.

“People have to be alive to get the help that they need,” she said. “So, that’s what this is. It gives people a chance to choose recovery again.”

Her story also speaks to another trend: People became increasingly willing to share their stories of addiction and recovery in the hope of reducing stigma and helping others.

It became more common to see people listing drug overdose as the cause of death in obituaries.

And more people are touting the benefits of medication-assisted therapy, using drugs like burenorphine or methadone.

Stacy Zeigler said buprenorphine has been essential to her three years of recovery.

From Zeigler’s vantage point, people are getting better at understanding what leads someone to heroin addiction, as more and more people know someone personally who has gone through it.

“Of course, I have Facebook, and you see posts all the time, ‘they made that choice, they took that pill, they put the needle in their arm,’ but for a lot of people, like with my story, it didn’t happen like that,” Zeigler said. “I didn’t wake up one day and say, okay, I’m going to get addicted to pain pills and then get addicted to heroin. It was a gradual thing that I didn’t realize it was happening at first.”

 

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