WEST CHESTER >> Now that Gov. Tom Wolf declared Pennsylvania’s heroin and opioid addiction crisis a statewide emergency, Claudia Palmer can finally get reassurance top officials are doing something about the growing problem.
But, she said, it will never bring her daughter back.
Palmer, who lives in Valley Township’s Rock Run section of town, found her daughter unresponsive on the floor of her house at 3 a.m. last year.
“I went to her room to check on her,” said Palmer, who holds down three jobs while raising her daughter’s two children. “I tried to get her up, but she wouldn’t move. I didn’t know she was dying, I didn’t know she would never get up. I called 911 and my grandson came into the room. The ambulance came and they tried to resuscitate her, but she wouldn’t come around. If only I knew. I’d give anything for my daughter to come back. Anything.”
Dr. Gordon, Eck, Chester County coroner last year, said Palmer’s daughter, Klaudia Lucille Palmer, had four illicit drugs in her system at the time she died, adding that heroin, cocaine and fentanyl were all present and “most certainly” the reason for death. Eck was defeated by Christiana VandePol in the last election.
State officials could not recall any other time such a proclamation has been used as a tool to fight a public health problem. But it’s a problem Wolf and other top state officials say must be addressed before more young people die.
“Governor Wolf’s disaster declaration will enable state agencies to waive regulations, lowering barriers to treatment,” said Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general. “It will create a coordinated response within PEMA to allow agencies to take a more unified approach to the epidemic. These steps are in addition to earlier actions by the governor in launching the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, providing funding to implement Centers of Excellence for treatment, and providing law enforcement and first responders with naloxone.”
Problem getting worse
It’s the numbers that tell the story.
In Chester County, 547 people died of drug overdoses in the past three years, according to a recent report by the DEA’s Philadelphia Division and the University of Pittsburgh. Nearly 69 percent of those drug overdose deaths were men, 90.5 percent of whom were white. Nearly 47 percent were in the age range of 25 to 44.
In Chester County, the overdose death rate has more than doubled since 1999. More drug overdose deaths in Chester County in the past three years -- 60 -- came from the 19320 zip code than any other. Second at 29 was the 19380 zip code, followed by 26 each in zip codes 19460 and 19335.
In the past three years, the drug fentanyl was far and above the leading cause of drug overdose death. More than 160 people died of fentanyl overdose in the past three years, followed by heroin at 115 and cocaine, at 75.
By comparison, nearly Montgomery County reported 812 drug overdose deaths in the past three years, from 2015 through 2017. Nearly 90 came from the 19464 zip code, and 73 from the 19401 zip code.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescriptions for opioids have dramatically increased — going from 76 million in 1991 to 207 million prescriptions in 2013.
Andrew Shepherd, a Coatesville High School graduate, was only 33 years old when he died in his home in Sadsburyville on Nov. 19 of last year. He was sprawled out on the floor for two days until his body was found. His friend, Vincent Guiseppe, 34, a 2001 Coatesville High School graduate, died on the same day.
Shepherd’s mother, Brenda Gouck, said efforts must be stepped up to get to the root of the problem – the drug dealers.
“I know my son put the needle in his arm,” Gouck said. “He had a drug problem for the past seven years and was in and out of rehab. He was killed by heroin that was laced with fentanyl. The dealers do this so they can keep more heroin for themselves. It’s so frustrating because these drug dealers are getting away with killing people.”
The statistics tell the story of the devastating problem. In 2016 more than 4,600 Pennsylvanians lost their lives to drug overdose. That was followed by more than 5,000 just last year. Pennsylvania, in fact, is among the 10 states with the highest opioid use and overdose rates. One person dies every 19 minutes from an unintentional drug overdose.
Eck said it’s time to get beyond the statistics and get to work on a solution. He said so many people are dying of drug overdoses in Chester County, that the families of the victims are starting to take up the cause.
“This problem affects all races, all income levels,” Eck said. “We have an army of people here in Chester County eager to get involved and get engaged, people whose families have been through this.”
He said he recently visited parents of a daughter in Royersford whose daughter died. She was a straight A student at Temple University, but Eck said her boyfriend gave her powder to snort and told her it was Xanax. After several times, he confessed it was heroin and she became addicted. The day after her boyfriend got out of jail, she died of a heroin overdose.
“The numbers exponentially are going up,” Eck said. “I was at West Chester University recently speaking to students and I asked how many in the room personally knew of an acquaintance who had exposure to the opioid epidemic, and every hand went up.”
Theodore Christopher, MD, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, said Gov. Wolf’s emergency declaration is long overdue.
“Progress has been made, but it’s clear that the finish line is not in sight,” Christopher said. “As we work to educate Pennsylvania physicians on this declaration and what it means, we’ll also continue to help them navigate new ways of helping their patients. Our organization will continue to monitor our state’s opioid and heroin crisis, and speak up on behalf of patients and their physicians. We will also continue to advocate for the needed expansion of access to treatment of Substance Use Disorder critical to our progress.”
Eck said he has seen a change in procedure for Chester County physicians who prescribe pain medication, which is addictive if abused.
“I think physicians now are beginning to prescribe a smaller quantity (of pain-killing drugs),” Eck said. “Now they are looking to give the lowest effective dose. There used to be a sense that we have to take all the pain away, but now if, say, 5 milligrams doesn’t work, they don’t just give them 10 milligrams. Maybe (the patient) is sore for a few days, but that’s OK.”
Gov. Wolf’s declaration would let Pennsylvania officials temporarily override any current rules or regulations they perceive as hampering the state’s ability to address the opioid epidemic. That could open to the door to a number of policy changes sought by officials and drug-prevention organizations in the state’s hardest-hit areas. It would also permit medics to leave behind a life-saving drug to people who have overdosed but are reluctant to get treatment.
Palmer said she saw first-hand how addiction slowly sucks the life out of people.
“An addict doesn’t care about anything but chasing that drug,” she said. “They will do anything. She (her daughter) robbed us of our life savings, all of our jewelry, probably about $65,000. She was convicted, did time, went to a halfway house and she went out and got high again. She was only 32 when she died.”
Attacking the problem
Gov. Wolf’s directive shines the spotlight directly on the crisis. It will give local officials the tools and resources to deal with the problem. Perhaps the wakeup call came earlier last year when two counselors at an addiction treatment center in West Brandywine died of opioid overdoses. The counselors each tested positive for heroin and fentanyl.
Said Shapiro: “As we continue losing more Pennsylvanians to overdoses, it’s clear we must do more.”
Chester County officials have been doing more, but perhaps not enough. Chester County’s Health Department is tackling the epidemic from a public health perspective, setting up an overdose death review team to track data, identify trends and make recommendations for policy creation. And they are focusing the education of doctors and other health care providers on opiate prescribing practices.
The county recently established an Overdose Prevention Task Force which is helping to increas public awareness in schools and task force members have already met with more than 30,000 students. Chester County was the first in the region to establish a treatment court.
And Chester County’s Color 5K is held every year in West Chester and helps to raise funds and raised awareness of the problem. This event is strongly endorsed and supported by county commissioners.
And the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania threw its support behind the governor’s directive. CCAP President and Lancaster County Commissioner Dennis Stuckey stated, “The staggering number of drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania requires all of the dedication and resources our leaders and our communities can muster. Counties have a critical role in addressing this epidemic and have made it one of their chosen priorities for 2018. We look forward to working with the General Assembly and administration on meaningful reforms that serve our residents and families, as well as guide the future health of our communities.”