Jan. 10—Gov. Tom Wolf declared a 90-day heroin and opioid epidemic statewide disaster emergency Wednesday that includes forming a command center involving health and public safety agencies and allowing first responders to leave behind naloxone kits at non-fatal overdose scenes.
“I don’t take this action lightly,” Wolf said during an afternoon press conference in Harrisburg in which he lamented the thousands of lives already lost to the crisis and the toll on surviving families. “We mourn their losses and try and empathize with the pain that we cannot even begin to imagine,” he said.
Now, though, Wolf said the state can do more under his declaration, which by law only lasts for 90 days and allows the state to waive certain requirements and regulations to address the epidemic. “It is imperative that we use every tool to try and contain and eradicate this public health crisis,” he said.
The three goals under the declaration include improving coordination and data collection to enhance the local and state response to the crisis; offering better tools to potentially save lives, such as naloxone; and expanding treatment access and streamlining the in-take process.
Wolf highlighted the creation of the command center, which will be overseen by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and will work to monitor all initiatives with the state Department of Health, state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, and the state police.
The declaration also expands access to the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program for clinical purposes, makes overdose and neonatal abstinence syndrome a reportable condition to improve data collection and makes contract changes to ensure that the 1-800-662-HELP line continues uninterrupted.
Jennifer Smith, acting secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs, said that since November 2016 nearly 20,000 calls have gone to the help line, which connects callers to resources and treatment.
Wolf’s declaration allows for emergency medical services providers to leave behind naloxone kits at overdose scenes where a victim survives but refuses to go to the hospital. Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said doing so could help those with substance abuse disorders survive to one day seek long-term treatment.
“You can’t get into treatment if you’re dead,” she said.
Other aspects of the declaration include allowing pharmacists to partner with organizations, such as prisons and treatment programs, to provide naloxone to at-risk individuals and reschedules fentanyl derivatives as a more serious Schedule 1 drug in line with federal standards.
Wolf said he hoped to ease access to treatment by waiving a requirement that those waiting to be admitted into treatment must have a face-to-face meeting with a physician and, instead, allowing certified registered nurse practitioners or physician assistants to do intake interviews.
Dosing at satellite facilities would also be allowed to expand access to medication-assisted treatment. Also, high-performing drug and alcohol treatment facilities would have bi-annual licensing instead of annual licensing to take up less staff time, those seeking treatment could have fees waived to obtain a birth certificate and licensing requirements would be waived to allow doctors to administer short-term medication-assisted treatment consistent with federal regulations.
Paul Bacharach, the president and CEO of Center Township-based Gateway Rehab, said the declaration “takes a number of steps in the right direction” and he was hopeful that lessons could be gleaned in the next 90 days to improve the response to the opioid epidemic.
Bacharach said the key to the declaration’s effectiveness would be “being able to collect and coordinate data and being able to provide better insight and information as to what approaches to treatment are most effective.”
With the declaration, Pennsylvania becomes the eighth state to declare the heroin and opioid crisis an emergency, joining Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia. President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in October, opening up more federal health grants, but did not declare it a national emergency, which would have made disaster relief funds available to states.
The declaration drew support from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) and the Pennsylvania Medical Society, as well as U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
“The staggering number of drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania requires all of the dedication and resources our leaders and our communities can muster,” Lancaster County Commissioner Dennis Stuckey, president of CCAP, said in a statement. “Counties have a critical role in addressing this epidemic and have made it one of their chosen priorities for 2018.”
Wolf’s declaration “has enabled physicians to do more to help patients who normally would have limited recovery options,” Dr. Theodore Christopher, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said in a statement that called for expanded access to treatment.