State College

In State College, alcohol EMS calls are routine. Who’s affected by risky drinking?

An ambulance sits outside Mount Nittany Medical Center Friday, Aug 10, 2018, in State College.
An ambulance sits outside Mount Nittany Medical Center Friday, Aug 10, 2018, in State College.

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Exploring the Cost of Alcohol

State College exists because of Penn State. But along with the many positives of living in a university town, there are negatives, too. A major one is the cost of alcohol use. “The Cost of Alcohol,” a multipart series from the Centre Daily Times, explores the financial and human burdens that come with it.

It’s a home Penn State football Saturday. Drinks are flowing. People are wasted. Centre LifeLink EMS paramedics and EMTs drive to downtown State College and “do the loop.”

“We can kind of get a gauge of how many times we’re going to be down there, just from how many people are wandering the streets, how the lines (look) outside the bars or the clubs, those kind of things, but we have some hot spots that we go to on a pretty regular basis,” said Jason Tartalone, a Centre LifeLink paramedic and special operations supervisor.

Those hot spots are “anywhere between Beaver and College” avenues, he said.

It’s a familiar scenario that’s only a few weeks away.

Depending on start time, Centre LifeLink can run 25 to 40 total calls on gameday, said Chief Kent Knable in an email. Tartalone estimated that between 12 and 24 of those would be alcohol-related calls.

Penn State EMS staffs up to 80 emergency medical technicians and paramedics inside and outside of Beaver Stadium, with additional staffing on ambulances from multiple outside agencies, according to Tiffany Spiroff-Walstrom, EMS supervisor.

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Provided by State College police

From Aug. 14 to Oct. 22, 2017, Penn State EMS received 119 alcohol-related calls, according to data provided by State College police.

During that same time frame, Centre LifeLink responded to 332 drug or alcohol-related calls. That’s 22 percent of its call volume for that time period. Of those, 257 patients were transported to the hospital.

In State College, alcohol-related EMS calls are just as routine as those for chest pains.

“You see one drunk, you’ve seen another drunk,” Tartalone said.

Treatment for alcohol poisoning, Tartalone said, consists mostly of comfort care.

“We’re just kind of talking to them, keeping them calm; we’ll check their vital signs ... . We try to get the police to do a breathalyzer and use that data to kind of steer whether or not we’re going to do something more advanced than that,” he said. “But a lot of times, it’s just checking vitals, making sure they’re staying awake, keeping their airway clear so they can breathe, those kinds of things.”

Once evaluated, paramedics decide whether to transport the patient to the hospital or release them into the care of a family member or sober friend. But oftentimes, finding that sober friend can be difficult at 2 o’clock in the morning and can delay calls from other patients in need of emergency services.

Josh Messing, a deputy chief at Centre LifeLink, once saw the friend coming to pick up a patient get a DUI.

Phoebe Sheehan

“Having crews waiting for a sober friend or transporting a patient to the hospital due to alcohol does become taxing to the system, but we treat patients who have consumed too much alcohol just like any other medical emergency,” Knable said.

High-risk drinking affects the whole community

But the consequences of high-risk drinking aren’t just limited to a potential ride in one of Centre LifeLink’s ambulances.

“The negative impacts of high-risk drinking are accrued to the individual that’s drinking both in terms of health impact and also the risks,” State College borough Manager Tom Fountaine said.

High-risk drinking puts people at a greater risk for sexual assault, altercations and other crimes, he said.

“There’s also community impacts that affect everyone in the community that are related to high-risk drinking,” Fountaine said. “That could involve friends or acquaintances involved in high-risk drinking, but also strangers or people who just simply live in the community.”

According to State College police statistics, in any given year, about 70-75 percent of all crime is associated with alcohol. Those crimes also include property damage, noise violations and driving under the influence.

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In terms of health consequences for the intoxicated patient, the most severe include aspiration, heart issues and even death.

“Most of the time (alcohol calls) are pretty uneventful. They’re just overly intoxicated, can’t walk, can’t talk; take them to the hospital, let them get sobered up. And we just go back to business,” Tartalone said.

According to emergency medicine physician Dr. Theodore Ziff, alcohol-related issues account for 1,400 visits to Mount Nittany Medical Center’s Emergency Department each year. So far this year, they’ve had just more than 700 cases.

History would suggest that number is about to increase, as Mount Nittany saw 485 cases during the first 10 weeks of last year’s fall semester, according to police statistics.

Although Mount Nittany and the EMS agencies plan ahead and staff for the increased number of patients associated with major community events such as home football games or Arts Fest, the extra calls can still be a burden to the system and delay services for others who need them.

“When we start getting that influx of calls, it can delay pretty much anything because ... it’s basically first-come, first-served for resources ...,” Tartalone said. “The county has that computer-aided dispatch system that prioritizes things, but it’s still a first-come, first-served basis. ... If there’s nothing else pending, we go to that call first so it can definitely delay resources, for sure, and I know it has.”

With increased access to alcohol comes increased risks

In 2016-17, the most recent year of Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board retail data available, the North Atherton Street liquor store ranked 24th out of 623 in the state for total dollar sales, with $11,313,776.

The State College area’s other three liquor stores — at Hamilton Square, Southridge Plaza and Benner Pike — came in at Nos. 44, 211 and 273, respectively.

The liquor stores with higher dollar sales than the one on North Atherton are mostly all in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or their suburb regions.

Kevin Scott McClatchy graphic

In 1998, liquor stores in State College made $8.3 million in sales, according to Tom King, State College borough assistant manager and former police chief. That number grew to $27.5 million in 2015 — a 231 percent increase.

In 2003-04, 178 Penn State students went to Mount Nittany Medical Center for alcohol-related visits, according to State College data. In 2015-16, 651 students went to the hospital for the same reason.

“Is there no correlation between sales and negative consequences?” King said.

The state legislature has somewhat modernized Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws in the past few years. Now, retailers like Giant, Weis and Sheetz can sell beer and wine.

According to the most recent census data, 70.6 percent of State College’s population is between the ages of 18-24. People in that age group, according to King, are at a higher risk for excessive drinking and poor decision-making.

“We not only have a young population, but we’ve become (a destination town for) people who want to come back to have a good time,” King said. “I thought when (lawmakers opened) up the floodgates to making alcohol much more accessible that would have been the time they would have at least said, ‘We also have to make sure that we’re taking care of those who have to deal with the consequences.’ They didn’t.”

A potential solution to help address those negative impacts could be a local alcohol tax, either on drinks at bars and restaurants or retail alcohol purchases.

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Some argue that imposing a local alcohol tax would be a detriment to customers and businesses. But several studies indicate that an alcohol tax could curb dangerous drinking, as well as raise revenue.

King cited studies from the National Institute on Alcohol Addiction and Alcoholism.

One of the proven strategies to reduce dangerous drinking is to increase the taxes on alcohol, he said.

Fountaine said the borough hasn’t ever received a reason from lawmakers about why local municipalities haven’t been granted greater taxing authority, other than “there’s no political appetite to levy those kinds of taxes or to modify the tax structure or to share that revenue.”

But some local lawmakers say they’re open to giving local residents the opportunity to decide for themselves what taxes they want to implement.