Updated: Jul 15, 2019
Like many communities across Pennsylvania and the United States, Berks County is in the grip of an unprecedented opioid epidemic fueled by soaring abuse of such highly addictive and dangerous drugs as heroin, fentanyl and other prescription opioid painkillers. The current opioid crisis clearly meets the dictionary definition of an epidemic: an unusually high occurrence of a disease or illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), on the average, 115 people die every day in the United States from an opioid overdose. There are approximately one and a half times more drug overdose deaths in the United States than deaths from motor vehicle crashes. By far, the most alarming indicator of the severity of the opioid epidemic is the significant increase in overdose deaths. The impact of this epidemic has and continues to be felt in Berks County. There has been an over 80% increase in the number of drug overdose deaths from 2014 to 2017 in Berks County. This sobering statistic alone speaks to the impact of the abuse of opioid drugs on the health and well-being of our community.
2016 was a watershed year for overdose deaths in Berks County. In that year the impact of opioid abuse and overdoses was felt the strongest in our community. There were 123 overdose deaths in 2016. This equates to ten of our fellow community members dying each month from a preventable cause. Think of that – ten family members, friends, co-workers, classmates, or neighbors that you will no longer see or interact with. This epidemic does not discriminate by race, gender, age, educational attainment or social status. From the streets of Reading to the suburban and rural areas of Berks County, families have lost loved ones at an alarming rate. There were daily media reports portraying the woes of the opioid crisis. First responders arriving just in time or just too late, emergency rooms receiving a constant ow of opioid-related cases, law enforcement fearing for the safety of the community due to stronger and stronger illicit opioids available, parents losing children, young children losing parents.
Berks County key decision-makers recognized their responsibility to respond to this epidemic. The Berks County Criminal Justice Advisory Board, comprised of leaders from the criminal justice system, Berks County Board of Commissioners, law enforcement, drug and alcohol, and mental health systems, convened the Berks County Opioid Task Force in 2016 to develop pro-active and effective responses to the opioid epidemic at a local level. Over the past two years, the Task Force has evolved into a Coalition of 70-plus individuals. These members are from various professional disciplines, with diverse points of view and expertise. However, there has been a singularity of purpose and common mission: saving and improving the lives of Berks County residents. Through its multi-disciplinary membership, the Berks Opioid Coalition has developed a vision and a strategic plan that provides both direction and accountability in our local responses to the epidemic.
Even before the Coalition was established, there were many efforts underway to address overdose and opioid-related issues. The District Attorney’s office had already established numerous medication drop boxes where individuals can safely discard unused medication. This is important both to assure that these medications do not end up in the wrong hands and that they are disposed responsibly. A hugely successfully warm handoff program had been established by the Tower Health Reading Hospital, the Council on Chemical Abuse, the Berks County HealthChoices Program and the Treatment Access and Services Center. This program helps individuals who are in the emergency room due to an overdose or other opioid-related issue to smoothly transfer to an appropriate drug and alcohol treatment service. This program has been highlighted across the state for its innovation and effectiveness. Recently, a partnership was developed with Penn State St. Joseph Hospital to initiate a warm handoff program to help address overdose issues and related issues at their emergency room. Also, community education forums regarding overdose and opioid use were presented by law enforcement and other local organizations. These are just a few of the efforts that were already taking place in 2016.
So if these things are already occurring, then why the need for a Coalition? The reason is simple; the sum of our combined talents and resources is greater than our individual efforts. The Coalition meets monthly and there are subcommittees that meet more often to develop ideas, to embrace collaboration and to enhance cooperation to address this epidemic. One of the first projects of the Coalition was the development of a community educational presentation. This educational presentation is filled with information regarding opioids, overdoses and resources in the community. There have been numerous presentations made to community groups and places of worship.
Naloxone is the lifesaving opioid overdose antidote that is crucial in preventing overdose deaths. Recently, the Coalition conducted an anonymous survey of local pharmacies to determine the availability of Naloxone. The results of this survey indicate the need to provide educational opportunities for some of our local pharmacies. Through the Coalition’s collaborative efforts, funding grants have been received for several projects: to develop family support programs for those inmates at Berks County Jail who are receiving Medication Assisted Treatment, to initiate an addiction stigma reduction program as it relates to the individual, the family and the community, and to identify a Centralized Coordinating Entity within Berks County to bolster distribution of Naloxone for police, emergency medical services and other first responders. Since November of 2017, close to 300 Naloxone kits have been distributed to first responders through the Centralized Coordinating Entity. In addition to all of this, one of the most important areas the Coalition has and continues to develop is a sense of hope. Hope that our community will heal and get better. Without a sense of hope, no progress can be made.
A more recent development of the Coalition has been to brand itself to be more recognizable by the community. It is crucial for individuals to see the Coalition as not just a symbol of hope against the opioid crisis, but even more importantly, a resource for help and information. In the past two months, the Coalition has named itself SOS Berks – Stop Overdoses...Save Lives. SOS is the international code signal of extreme distress. In many ways our community, our state and our nation are in a state of distress. In October 2017, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a Public Health Emergency. In January 2018, Governor Wolf declared the opioid crisis a Statewide Disaster Emergency. The problem is real.
There is still much to be done. The opioid crisis has not subsided or gone away. But, we are motivated by our past and current efforts to propel us into future accomplishments. We seek to be able to better gather and analyze pertinent local data to determine where best to utilize resources. We seek to improve outreach education and public awareness efforts in high risk but underserved neighborhoods and communities. We seek to make the lifesaving opioid antidote Naloxone more available to Berks County residents. We seek to create more availability and easier access to appropriate and necessary substance use treatment. Treatment works and people recover. For that reason, for those with an Opioid Use Disorder the best overdose prevention is sustained recovery from addiction. We seek ways to support local law enforcement to continue to make our streets and neighborhoods safe. Overall, SOS Berks seeks to save and improve the lives of Berks County residents.
What can you do? At a minimum, try to make yourself more aware of the opioid problem and the available resources in the community. This magazine has numerous articles and information to give you a better understanding of the opioid crisis and the resources available to address the problem. If you so choose, you could organize a community education forum in your neighborhood, civic organization or place of worship.
Berks County is a great place to live; let’s keep it that way.
- Written by Coalition Co-Chairs: Kevin S. Barnhardt, Commissioner,
County of Berks, and Stanley J. Papademetriou, Executive Director,