Death toll from drug use keeps climbing

Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation have been facing a crisis with drug addiction for years now, and for all the talk about finding a solution, matters just keep getting worse.

Reading police delivered a sad reminder of just how serious the problem is recently when they announced that they responded to 12 drug overdose calls on just one Saturday. Three of them were fatal. Within a few days the Berks County death toll had risen to 10, while more people were successfully resuscitated.

Medical crews were receiving call after call for people in cardiac arrest or who lapsed into unconsciousness. Medics were able to revive many of the victims, but not everyone could be saved.

Authorities linked the spike in cases to a lethal batch of fentanyl. Law enforcement is investigating the source of the drugs in question. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller often linked to fatal overdoses, is commonly mixed with street drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

The situation is a reminder that one shouldn’t make assumptions about drug addiction. There were victims in the suburbs and in the city. Most of the fatal overdose victims in Berks were over the age of 50.

Given the enormous toll exacted by drugs across a wide geographic and demographic swath of the population over recent years, it would be reasonable to expect people to realize that stereotypes about addiction need to be rejected. All of us must be on our guard to protect ourselves and our loved ones from falling into this deadly trap.

One important lesson is for people to realize that street drugs always pose a danger, especially with fentanyl in the mix.

“The common denominator to the overdoses and the death is fentanyl,” Berks District Attorney John T. Adams told the Reading Eagle. “We’ve said this before and it bears repeating: When you buy drugs on the street, there’s no quality control, and when you ingest these drugs you are risking your life.”

This is a national issue. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced another record high in overdose deaths. It estimates 106,854 people died due to drug overdose in the 12-month period ending November 2021. Annual drug overdose deaths nationwide have more than doubled over the past six years, rising 16% over the past year alone.

Synthetic opioids — including fentanyl — were involved in about two-thirds of drug overdose deaths over the past year. Deaths involving synthetic opioids or psychostimulants have nearly doubled in number over the past two years.

While this situation affects the entire nation, it’s particularly bad in Pennsylvania. The CDC reports that Pennsylvania is one of five states that account for one-third of US overdose deaths. The others are California, Florida, Ohio and Texas.

There is widespread agreement that psychological and economic strain posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is a big part of the problem. The past couple of years have been tough on everyone but particularly dangerous for people most at risk of substance abuse.

But it’s still not clear what the solution is. Leaders keep searching for the right balance of law enforcement, treatment options, educational outreach and other tactics to reverse this terrible trend. We need to start seeing results as soon as possible.

One reason to hold out some hope is that Pennsylvania will receive $1.07 billion as part of a $26 billion national settlement with three pharmaceutical distributors over their roles in fueling the opiod epidemic. Counties should soon be seeing the first round of payments, which are intended to be used toward addressing the addiction crisis. State officials say the funds will provide more treatment capacity and services such as transportation for people trying to access treatment.

State and local leaders must use those funds effectively while continuing to try to reach a consensus on an effective way to reverse a devastating trend that is taking such a toll on local communities and families.

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