WASHINGTON, PA. — “We do have some things to be hopeful about.”
That was Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Deputy Secretary Ellen DiDomenico’s summary of where the state stands amid Gov. Tom Wolf’s heroin and opioid disaster declaration during the first regional meeting of the Opioid Command Center at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services (SPHS) Care Center in Washington on Wednesday.
Joining Wolf to highlight and discuss progress made as a result of initiatives introduced as part of his statewide disaster declaration in January in response to Pennsylvania’s opioid addiction crisis and remaining challenges were DiDomenico, Dr. Rachel Levine, secretary of the state Department of Health, Rick Flinn, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, Washington County Drug & Alcohol Commission Executive Director Cheryl Andrews and other state, local and SPHS officials.
The declaration allowed state officials to rely upon what Levine said were weekly command center meetings hosted by Flinn to track progress and to enhance coordination of health and public safety agencies.
Last month, Wolf announced the renewal of his 90-day disaster declaration, which was set to expire on April 10.
“This disaster declaration is really unique because it has brought together 14 different state agencies every week and then other phone calls … in addressing the biggest public health crisis that we face in Pennsylvania,” Levine said.
Wolf’s initial disaster declaration in January included several initiatives, including expanding access to the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) to other state entities for clinical decision-making, making overdoses and neonatal abstinence syndrome (withdrawal of infants resulting from a mother’s drug dependence during pregnancy) as reportable to the state Department of Health and enabling emergency responders to leave behind naloxone for overdose patients who decline further treatment.
“We’re beginning to see through the data that we’re beginning to turn the tide a little bit,” DiDimenico said. “But we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”
Data collection was a major focus at Wednesday’s meeting, during which officials touted the Pennsylvania Opioid Data Dashboard at https://data.pa.gov/stories/s/9q45-nckt, which features data on opioid prevention, rescue and treatment by county.
“We have significantly reduced since the beginning of the PDMP (in 2016) the rate at which opioids are being prescribed,” Levine said, adding that the data is shared at opioid command center meetings as well.
The data dashboard reports that there were 108 newborns on Medicaid born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome in Fayette County in 2016, as well as 100 in Westmoreland County, 49 in Washington County and 33 in Greene County.
Wolf’s office on Wednesday said that more than 60 percent of hospitals and birthing centers in the state are now reporting cases of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome as a result of Wolf’s declaration.
“We saw from the data that we’re actually starting to make some modest progress,” Wolf said after the meeting. “One of the frustrating things for me as governor was to see the death rate go up each year I’ve been governor … This year, for the first time, we’re starting to see some progress in terms of people being saved with naloxone. (There’s) more order coming to prescription of opioids.”
Wolf’s office also reported that more than 50 percent of eligible facilities applied for and received two-year licenses following Wolf’s waiver of annual licensing requirements for high-performing drug and alcohol treatment facilities as part of his disaster declaration.
At Wednesday’s Opioid Command Center meeting, State Police Maj. William Teper noted the Wolf administration’s announcement in March of the Pennsylvania Overdose Information Network (ODIN), a centralized repository to track overdoses, naloxone administrations and investigative drug information available for police, public safety and health personnel to use.
Levine said that work on workman’s compensation opioid-prescribing guidelines with the state Department of Labor and Industry will begin Thursday.
Andrews reported a 9 percent reduction in overdose deaths in Washington County from 2016 to 2017.
“To actually begin to see data emulate your efforts, it spurs us on,” Andrews said. “There’s a lot of great things happening in western Pennsylvania, and the people sitting around this table from the local level have all been a part of that.”
Wolf said his disaster declaration has broken down barriers among state agencies and between state, county and local entities in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
“You’d be amazed at how many silos there are in state government,” Wolf said.
Wolf said that the disaster declaration initiatives came from a sense of hope that the state could get to a better place in its opioid fight. In reflecting on that fight, DiDomenico emphasized the power of hope itself.
“Hope is such an important, critical piece in all of this,” DiDomenico said.