By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

City wide public safety meeting focuses on city's opiod epidemic


The spring city wide public safety meeting focusing on the opioid epidemic and other addictions drew more than 125 people to the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on April 19.

It featured a presentation and discussion by victims, first responders, and health care providers regarding the tell-tale signs and consequences of opiate addictive drugs, along with the impact addiction has on families and the community.

“This is something that is very important here and in the country,” police Chief Scott Schubert said of the nationwide crisis.

Opioids are medications doctors prescribe to treat pain, along with drugs like heroin which are illegally obtained on the street. Names of more common opioids include: hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine, fentanyl, and methadone.

Comments from the panel began with those of Colin Dwyer, FUSE Executive Fellow, Opioid Response Strategy, Allegheny County.

He said in 2015 there were 424 fatal overdoses in the county. In 2016, that number rose to 613. Opioids were involved in 90 percent of the overdoses.

“More and more fatal overdoses involve fentanyl,” he said of the synthetic opioid.

As to what the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) is doing about the problem, he cited: leading the efforts to unite the EMS, police, fire and other public safety departments to give a unified response; promoting public education; and more.

Next, Dr. Michael Lynch, medical director, Pittsburgh Poison Center, said there was a 34 percent increase in fatal overdoes in the county from 2015 to 2016, with fentanyl increasing in patients.

“As long as there is demand, there will be supply,” he said.

For overdoses, call 911.

Regarding Narcan, he said while it saves lives, it does enable.

Narcan is a prescription medication that immediately reverses the effects of a potentially fatal opioid overdose, thereby saving lives.

Narcan blocks opiate receptors, thereby preventing and reversing the harmful effects of the drugs, and restores breathing.

Anyone who uses opioids for any reason, even prescription drugs, can misuse them or become addicted.

The Pittsburgh police carry Narcan in their vehicles, as do the other public safety departments.

Dr. Lynch said there are typically a lot of leftover prescription opioids in residents’ medicine cabinets, which should be turned in.

“Get rid of old prescriptions,” he said.

Unused prescription drugs can be disposed of by calling Project D.U.M.P. (Disposal of Unused Medications Properly) at 412-459-5000. County residents may call this hotline 24 hours a day to schedule a free pick up of unwanted prescription medications or illicit substances.

The Pittsburgh Poison Center provides programs and outreach. For more information, call 1-800-222-1222. 

The next speaker was Calvin Kennedy, a narcotics detective with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. He said in the city in 2015, there were 341 overdoses, of which 160 were non-fatal.

In 2016, the numbers grew to 687 overdoses, 538 of which were non-fatal.

As of April, there have already been 510 overdoses, with 445 of those non-fatal, and 65 fatal.

Detective Kennedy said he does not believe addiction is a disease, unlike many in the medical profession.

He said the only way he has found to help young people is to not tell them they are victims. Instead, they must learn to accept responsibility for their actions.

Next, Lt. Jeff Yoder, of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, said there were 43 to 45 overdoses on New Year’s Eve.

“This epidemic has really taken off,” he said.

The Narcan program in the Fire Bureau was started in 2015.

“We’re giving someone a chance at redemption, and away from the vicious cycle they are in,” he said.

Chief Robert Farrow, of Emergency Medical Services (EMS), said the department responded to over 62,000 calls last year, of which 2,300, or five percent, were for overdoses.

In 2012, there were 903 calls for overdoses. Based on the call volume so far this year, he estimated the bureau will receive close to 3,000 calls by December.

He said it used to be that one person overdosed at home. Today, there will be four people at one site who overdosed.

“It’s a strain on our resources,” he said.

Most fatal overdoses occur when someone is alone as there is no one to call for help. If you encounter someone who just overdosed, Chief Farrow said to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until help arrives.

The symptoms of an overdoes include: person won’t wake up even if you shake them or say their name; breathing slows or even stops; lips and fingernails turn blue or gray; skin gets pale, clammy.

He said the drain on the city is not the cost of Narcan, but rather in all of the departments which must respond.

“It’s gratifying to us to bring somebody back,” he said. The frustrating part is seeing that person a week or month later in the same overdose situation, he said.

The next panel speaker was Barbara Grimm, who has been in recovery for 12 years, during which she has been “clean” for eight years. Her routine was to receive Narcan, be taken to the hospital, and then “released to the streets,” she said.

Her addiction began when the father of her child was killed in a car accident in which she was badly injured. She was prescribed pain medicine, including Vicodin and OxyContin, while also battling the emotional scars of losing her child’s father.

After using the opioid pain medication OxyContin for a year, she realized heroin was cheaper, and it became her drug of choice.

“You do anything and everything to get high,” she said.

After a few years, she set a goal of recovery, which she calls a “daily battle.”

Ms. Grimm relapsed last year and overdosed, after which she put herself in detox and, is today, speaking out on addiction and its oftentimes roots in prescription drug abuse.

“This epidemic is horrible,” she said.

Maisha Howze, assistant administrator for the county’s Dept. of Human Services (DHS), Bureau of Drug & Alcohol Services, said children raised by parents with addictions often develop depression and anxiety.

The long-term effect for children with addiction in their families is they become addicts themselves.

She advised anyone who knows a child in a family with addictions should “try to be a positive figure in their lives.”

For non-emergency drug and alcohol questions, call DHS at 412-350-3328.


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