Leading Pennsylvania health official warns of drug abuse crisis

Rachel Levine
Rachel Levine

The threat of international disease is a concern, but it pales in comparison with the threat of narcotics within our borders.

Newly appointed Pennsylvania Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine delivered this message Tuesday during the opening remarks for the 2015 Public Health Preparedness Summit.

Levine, who was confirmed as physician general June 9, said international travel is the norm in today’s world, increasing the potential for infectious disease outbreaks.

Public health authorities assured the nation that there was no real chance Ebola could come to the U.S., she said, but were proved wrong when an infected individual appeared in Texas.

“They said every hospital is fully prepared to take care of a patient with Ebola,” she said. “Clearly, that was not the case.”

Much has been learned at the national and state levels since then, she said, and hospitals have stepped up and are much better prepared.

But the biggest public health crisis in Pennsylvania and possibly the country is the threat of opiates, prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse, Levine said.

“Each case of these issues touches the lives not only of those addicted, but their loved ones and their friends,” she said. “It has become a public health crisis and it touches all of us.”

More people die from heroin and opioid overdoses than in motor vehicle accidents, making them the leading cause of accidental death in Pennsylvania. A Pennsylvania Coroner’s Association report indicated 2,489 died from overdoses in 2014, a 20 percent increase from 2013.

At least seven Pennsylvanians a day — ranging in age from 4 months to 89 years — die from drug-related overdoses, she said.

“If you think about it in terms of if this was an infectious disease,” she said, “this would be an epidemic.”

All lives matter, Levine said. One way the state is combating overdose deaths is through Act 139 and the distribution of Naloxone.

Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a medication used to counter the effect of opioids and can sometimes bring an individual out of an overdose.

Through Act 139, Naloxone will be distributed in two ways, she said. First responders, including fire, EMS and municipal police departments, will have access to the medication.

Second, she said, the act will allow family members to obtain it with a prescription in the case of a fellow family member who may be using drugs or heroin. By next week, she said, she intends to sign a standing order for prescriptions, allowing residents to go to a pharmacy and ask for Naloxone without a physician’s prescription.

At this time, two versions of the medication are available, Levine said — a nasal spray and an auto injector. The spray, the less expensive of the two, costs about $40 and will be covered by medical assistance. The auto injector can cost more than $400, according to an audience member, and unless it’s covered by personal insurance, could be prohibitively expensive.

The Department of Health is working on raising money to provide Naloxone free to first responders, she said. Training is available through the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs website.

The two-day conference at the Ramada State College Hotel and Conference Center seeks to bring preparedness stakeholders — including the state health department, municipal health departments, care coalitions and EMS providers — together to learn of the issues relevant in the preparedness community, Bureau of Public Health Preparedness Director Andrew Pickett said.