Centre County on pace for fewest drug overdose deaths in 7-plus years. Here’s why

Centre County is on pace to have its fewest drug overdose deaths in at least the past seven years — one year after it reached its high-water mark during the same period.

There were two drug overdose deaths in the county through August, meaning the county is on pace for three in 2019. In 2018, there were 22 drug overdose deaths in the county.

While cautioning that one overdose death is too many, county Commissioner Steve Dershem said he is “thrilled” with the reduction.

“We hope that this trend continues,” Dershem said. “We hope it’s something that goes well into the future, and we would love to see the number of overdose deaths rest at zero.”

More than 5,456 Pennsylvanians died of a drug-related overdose in 2017, according to a joint report published in September 2018 by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the University of Pittsburgh. At 43 deaths per 100,000, that rate “far exceed(s)“ the national average of 22 deaths per 100,000, the report found.

Part of Centre County’s response to the epidemic was the Centre County Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education Initiative, which was founded in May 2016, county Criminal Justice Planning Director Karri Hull said.

The coalition meets monthly to examine drug overdoses, discuss how to educate the community and reduce the stigma associated with use disorders, Hull said.

“We certainly hope that the effects of our work with the HOPE Initiative are maybe part of this reduction in overdose deaths, but we can’t say for certain,” Hull said. “... We like to think that we’re at least helping to do our part, however small that is, and just bringing awareness around substance use disorder, so people know they’re not alone and it is a disease and that treatment does work and recovery is possible.”

Drug take-back boxes are also part of the county’s multifaceted approach. The boxes are nearly ubiquitous in urban areas throughout the state and there are 877 locations in the Keystone State, according to the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

With the exception of Spring Township police, each police department that operates in Centre County has a take-back box, along with the sheriff’s department, the Willowbank Building and three pharmacies.

More than 4,400 pounds of medication have been disposed of in the county since the boxes were installed in August 2016, Hull said.

“When we do resource events, that’s the first thing we start with because everyone can relate to that,” Hull said of the boxes. “Everyone has substances — whether they be over-the-counter or prescriptions — you can dispose of.”

Ferguson Township Police officer Walt Embser and chief Chris Albright empty the drug take back box in the station lobby on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Abby Drey

The next step in the county’s evolving approach to the opioid epidemic — which the Pennsylvania Department of Health said is the “worth public health crisis” in the state — is a co-responder pilot program aimed at helping those who were administered naloxone, which treats narcotic overdoses in an emergency situation, Hull said.

The county received a more than $114,000 federal grant in August, which will help pay for the pilot through June 2021. Bellefonte and Ferguson Township police agreed to participate in the pilot, Hull said.

After a first responder administers the medication designed to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, individuals are encouraged to go to a hospital for treatment, but typically refuse. Their care generally ends there, Hull said.

The co-responder model, however, requires a police officer from the jurisdiction where the naloxone was administered and a certified recovery specialist to visit the individual within 48 hours to encourage them to seek treatment and discuss the resources and options available to them, Hull said.

“Some other counties across Pennsylvania have been piloting that project and it seems to be having some success, so we’re gonna try to pilot that here in Centre County to try and reach some folks that maybe wouldn’t be reached otherwise,” Hull said.

From November 2017 through March, 27 doses of naloxone were used on 19 county individuals and resulted in 17 reversals, Hull said. The increased availability of naloxone has had “a huge impact” on the number of overdose deaths, Dershem said.

“I think people are coming around to understanding how dangerous the opioid crisis is,” Dershem said. “It’s not just something that happens to people ‘over there.’ It can happen to somebody in your family or your circle of friends.”

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Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.