Gov. Wolf to declare state emergency on opioid epidemic

In this Feb. 2, 2017, file photo, used needles litter the ground at an open air drug market along Conrail train tracks in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have skyrocketed.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Wolf on Wednesday will declare Pennsylvania’s heroin and opioid addiction crisis a statewide emergency, making it  the eighth state to take such a step amid a public health scourge that has devastated communities and led to a spike in overdose deaths, the Inquirer and Daily News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have learned.

Wolf will draw on his authority as governor to proclaim a disaster emergency, a status normally reserved for cleanup and other relief efforts after natural disasters and severe storms, according to two sources familiar with the governor’s plan.

State officials could not recall any other time such a proclamation has been used as a tool to fight a public health problem.

The declaration would let Pennsylvania officials temporarily override any rules or regulations they perceive as hampering the state’s ability to address the epidemic. That could open the door to a number of policy changes sought by officials and drug-prevention organizations in the state’s hardest-hit areas — such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — including allowing medics to leave behind a life-saving drug with people who have overdosed but are reluctant to enter treatment.

The Deadly Toll of Opioids in Pennsylvania

The use of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, increased steadily among drug-related deaths in Pennsylvania in 2016. In January, fentanyl was present in less than a third of deaths.By December, it was detected in almost three-quarters of overdoses.
Percentage of Pa. drug-related deaths in 2016 in which these specific opioids were detected
Staff Graphic

It also would establish a new group, staffed by the heads of the state’s health, emergency, and law enforcement departments, and a new command center to better coordinate treatment and prevention efforts, according to the sources, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the plan ahead of the governor’s announcement.

Reached for comment late Tuesday, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott acknowledged the governor will be making “a major announcement” involving opioids on Wednesday but declined to discuss details. An advisory put out by the office Tuesday evening said Wolf “has made fighting the opioid crisis one of his top priorities, and his announcement tomorrow will build on his efforts to address this looming public health issue.”

The declaration would mark the latest effort by Wolf to stem a problem that has been steadily worsening across the state.

Pennsylvania has struggled with the opioid crisis more than most states. The most recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Pennsylvania having the fourth-highest rate of drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people in the country. The state counted 4,642 drug overdose deaths in 2016, and roughly 3,900 — nearly 85 percent — involved opioids, according to a separate analysis of state drug death data by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy.

Statistics for last year are still being finalized — it often takes weeks to receive final drug test results from an autopsy — but health officials expect to see an increase. The state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, an online database, reported an 82 percent increase in emergency room visits for opioid overdoses from 2016 to 2017, according to state officials.

Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Virginia have all taken similar steps, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, a nonprofit representing public health agencies across the country.

The specifics of the declarations have varied from state to state. Generally speaking, emergency status frees up funding and allows for better coordination among agencies trying to battle addiction. In some cases, that makes it easier to provide first responders with access to naloxone and other drugs that help reverse the effects of opioids.

In Pennsylvania, the governor’s declaration could allow state officials to decrease the number of times it must do licensing reviews for high-performing treatment centers, leaving more time for focusing on treatment efforts rather than bureaucracy. It could also permit a registered nurse or a nurse practitioner, rather than a doctor, to jump-start the treatment admission process, allowing for faster access to help.

At the federal level, the Trump administration last fall declared the opioid problem a public health emergency, freeing additional grant money, allowing for more specialists to be hired, and cracking down on the importation of fentanyl, a particularly potent opioid, from China. President Trump was criticized for not instead declaring a national emergency, which would have quickly released more federal funds to combat the problem.

Pennsylvania’s prescription drug-monitoring program, started in 2016, was part of a larger effort by Wolf and advocates to curb the over-prescribing of opioids that has worsened the crisis. The administration has also expanded access to naloxone to law enforcement as well as the general public.

Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled legislature have also joined forces to push through measures to tighten requirements for prescribing painkillers and increase education for physicians.