Trump is declaring opioids 'emergency,' but it's a chronic crisis in Philly

Politicians, law enforcement personnel and reporters tour an open air drug market strewn with litter and used needles, along Conrail train tracks in the Kensington.

With the opioid death toll already surpassing 100 Americans a day, President Trump plans to declare Thursday afternoon that the crisis is a public health emergency.  How the impact of that move will be felt locally isn’t yet clear; the declaration is expected to help loosen some rules on how federal funds are spent, among other things.

But there is no doubt what the opioid crisis has done to the Philadelphia region.

El Campamento

In Nov. 2016, The Inquirer’s spotlight on a makeshift camp of heroin users along railroad tracks that run through Kensington and Fairhill shed light on the extent of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic.

The encampment, known as El Campamento, was considered by the DEA as the East Coast’s largest heroin market. Even America’s best-known physician, Dr. Oz, visited.

Surge in overdose deaths

In a particularly harrowing week of Dec. 2016, opioids killed an unprecedented 35 people in Philadelphia during a devastating five-day period. Twenty-six tested positive for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that experts described as the “third wave of the crisis.” Fentanyl — used to sedate elephants and other large animals — is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.  Carfentanil, which has also been suspected in Philadelphia overdose deaths, is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. Some worried that just touching the drug could cause an overdose but Inquirer reporter Marie McCullough found that’s ‘highly unlikely.’

By the end of 2016, fatal drug overdoses had surged to 900.

The increase in overdose deaths has cost taxpayers dearly as victims stack up for coroners who struggle to keep up.

Cleanup underway, but what’s next?

This summer, contractors began cleanup work along the Gurney Street railroad tracks in Kensington. It was “a big step in what will be a long journey,” said Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis.

A Sharp Rise in Local Drug-Overdose Deaths

Drug deaths increased by an average of 50 percent across the eight-county Philadelphia region during the first half of 2017 compared with the same period a year earlier, with wide variations among counties.

SOURCES: Coroners and medical examiners for each county; Office of the State Medical Examiner of New Jersey; University of Pittsburgh’s OverdoseFreePA data site
Staff Graphic

Some in the area worried, however, that once the cleanup is finished, overdose fatalities could increase as users shoot up in abandoned houses or cathedrals. Or even local libraries, like McPherson Square, where librarians often use Narcan to revive victims who overdose in the adjacent park.

Inquirer columnist Mike Newall thinks the answer to that problem is safe injection sites. Earlier this month, he traveled to Toronto to learn more about how the city’s pop-up safe-injection site, located in a city park, had saved the lives of 100 people.

While politicians decide what to do next, overdose deaths in the Philadelphia region are soaring faster than ever. An Inquirer analysis of data from county coroners and medical examiners shows fatal overdoses increased by 58 percent in Philadelphia when comparing the first half of 2017 with 2016. For Camden County, overdose fatalities more than doubled.