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Taking back our streets from heroin

Posted 7/19/16

The frantic calls from Middletown-area residents to 911 have been alarmingly high in the past year.

Often the panicked call is not reported as “a suspected drug overdose.” Instead, it is logged as a “cardiac arrest,” an “unresponsive …

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Taking back our streets from heroin


The frantic calls from Middletown-area residents to 911 have been alarmingly high in the past year.

Often the panicked call is not reported as “a suspected drug overdose.” Instead, it is logged as a “cardiac arrest,” an “unresponsive person,” or a loved one “not breathing.” The repeated culprit is a light white powder. The hundreds of medical emergencies it has generated in Middletown and beyond in the past year alone turn a spotlight on two shocking truths: the next heroin fix may be a user’s last, and despite this fatal possibility, the heroin epidemic rages on, taking most users in the prime of their lives.

The loss of so many young lives in Middletown and throughout the county has forced police, the district attorney, and the coroner to repeatedly warn the public about the Russian roulette that is injecting, smoking or snorting substances cut with any number of unknown toxins.

A recent rash of deaths underscores that heroin users have no idea what they are getting in each bag of heroin they buy, how much will be too much, or how hard it will be to stop this toxic habit once it starts. When the heroin “switch” turns on, it doesn’t just turn off with one good-faith flip.

Dauphin County is attacking this high-stakes scourge in multiple ways, and it can’t happen soon enough. Drug overdoses take the lives of seven Pennsylvanians a day, on average. In each strategy we are pursuing, we are matching the aggressive nature of our enemy and venturing right into the dark heart of the action. Our newly launched strategies revolve around these five key actions:

1. Immediate intervention: Two new “mobile case managers’’ are being hired and soon will be on call 24/7 to respond to the scene of an overdose, whether it is the hospital emergency room, a bar, a home or anywhere else in the county. The goal is to guide, support and encourage overdose survivors to voluntarily enter inpatient treatment starting at that critical moment, rather than letting them leave a hospital and return to their addiction.

2. Follow up with overdose survivors: For those we do not see at the time of their overdose, we will be mobilizing county-trained, certified recovery specialists.

3. Narcan training: We are training probation officers, county staff, and the community to administer the overdose reversal drug, naloxone — which goes by the brand name Narcan — to reverse overdoses. Thanks to the district attorney’s leadership, nearly all police departments in the county are now carrying naloxone.

(Narcan, which can be either inhaled or injected, blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and restores breathing within two to eight minutes without harming other vital organs.)

Additionally, we will be making Narcan available to friends and families of people suffering from the disease of addiction and training them in its use. Narcan is also available at all CVS pharmacies without a prescription.

4. Continuing treatment for those released from prison: We are ensuring that once inmates are released, they are continually in a treatment program to continue the progress they made behind bars. Additionally, the county is expanding the availability of medication-assisted treatments for opioid addiction that stabilize the patient and curb cravings, including methadone, buphrenorphine (suboxone), and vivitrol. Vivitrol, or long-acting naltrexone is not an opiate, rather it is an opiate blocker and can also be used to treat alcohol dependence. These medications show great promise when partnered with clinically appropriate drug and alcohol treatment.

5. Reduced waiting period for treatment: Not just in Dauphin County, but statewide, there is a long waiting list for treatment, especially for detox beds. Fortunately, providers such as Gaudenzia Common Ground are increasing bed capacity, making slow incremental progress. We are working directly with emergency room doctors at hospitals such as Pinnacle Health to ensure immediate access to treatment.

Education remains a vital tool in our efforts. We have held multiple town hall meetings, talking to more than 200 concerned citizens. Drug and alcohol counselors are also now located in every middle school and high school in the county. With each of these actions, we hope to chip away at the stigma of addiction.

Our message is simple:  If you suffer from the disease of addiction, you are not weak, or stupid. You need help.

Treatment works. You can get better. We urge those in need to let the county be the bridge to treatment for you or your loved one. The county phone number is 717-635-2254. We can even help you navigate your insurance for substance abuse help. In the heroin war, there is no magic “fix.” But, in Dauphin County, trained and caring helpers wait for you at every point in the journey toward recovery, ready to help you take on the enemy.

Jeff Haste (left), Mike Pries (center) and George Hartwick III are Dauphin County's commissioners.

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