HARRISBURG — The Center for Rural Pennsylvania Board of Directors, chaired by Sen. Gene Yaw, held a virtual public hearing Thursday to learn more about COVID-19’s influence on the heroin/opioid crisis in Pennsylvania. Preliminary data indicate that reported overdoses increased in rural Pennsylvania during the pandemic.
“The heroin and opioid crisis continues to devastate our residents and our communities, and the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the crisis in Pennsylvania,” Yaw said. “In the first several months of the pandemic, overdose rates in our rural and urban communities increased. We want to know what has been happening throughout the state, and within our rural communities, to address the crisis in terms of law enforcement, outreach, treatment, and recovery.”
Though the center started to look into how the heroin/opioid problem is affecting rural Pennsylvania primarily, Yaw said, after 16 hearings, they have found that it’s not a rural problem although some of the problems faced by rural Pennsylvania are unique just because of distance, service availability and things like that.
Thursday’s hearing is a continuation of the center’s look into the issue, and specifically what they want to look at now, the past year, and coming up on the first anniversary of COVID-19.
“Some of the things I know that most of us have heard is that COVID-19 has replaced the heroin/opioid problem and the result has been that maybe we’ve taken a couple of steps backward,” said Yaw.
One of the presenters during the public hearing was Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who provided a taped video message.
“While you in this center have remained focused on the opioid epidemic, too much of our public discussions have lost sight of it,” said Shapiro. “The opioid epidemic has, in a way, become once again a quiet crisis in the shadows here in the Commonwealth.”
Shapiro said much of the attention has understandably been diverted to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the health, safety, and economic well-being of families and communities.
“It has even led to likely increased substance abuse, particularly in our rural communities,” said Shapiro. “We must beat COVID in order to redouble our efforts to fight the opioid addiction and there is no path to the investment, intervention, treatment law enforcement, and support needed to beat the opioid crisis while a pandemic rages on.”
While there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the coronavirus with highly effective vaccines now being distributed, Shapiro said there is no similar silver bullet in the arsenal to defeat the opioid crisis.
“It is incumbent upon all public officials, you and others across this great Commonwealth, along with our community partners, to bring the same sense of urgency to addressing the opioid addiction crisis as we have the pandemic so that we can combat it in a meaningful way to save lives and stop the suffering,” said Shapiro, noting he applauds the Center for Rural Pennsylvania for keeping a focus on this critical issue.
Shapiro said his office has been working hard to address this crisis on every front. Since taking office, Shapiro said they’ve arrested 6,500 drug dealers all across Pennsylvania. The state averages about four drug dealers being arrested every single day.
“We now arrest 50 percent more doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals for illegally diverting prescription opioids to the black market,” said Shapiro. “And before I took office, and thanks to the funding led by Chairman Yaw and other members of the general assembly, we now are able to better, through our prescription drug database laws, combat this crisis. We’ve shut down major drug pipelines in every corner of the state and strengthened key partnerships across law enforcement to make our work more effective for all.”
However, said Shapiro, the state cannot arrest its way out of a crisis of addiction.
“Drug addiction is a disease, not a crime,” said Shapiro. “That’s why we operate prescription drug take-backs. So they’ve removed over 181 tons, 181 tons, of unused prescription opioids from our community since 2017. It’s why we educate hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians each year on prescription and illegal drugs. And it’s why I launched the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative, partnering with county district attorneys and local police departments to help us establish innovative pathways to treatment without the threat of arrest.”
Shapiro said the program will continue to expand in rural communities in Pennsylvania this spring — a priority of his in this region.
In addition, Shapiro said his office is holding companies that made billions of dollars off the opioid epidemic accountable.
“These are the people who manufactured this crisis based on decisions they made in their boardrooms. Just last week, I announced a $573 million settlement against McKinsey, one of the world’s largest consulting firms, for its role in helping opioid companies promote their drugs and boost their profits by selling and ultimately getting more people addicted to opioids,” said Shapiro. “And working alongside my fellow attorney generals, a bipartisan group of us are continuing to drive toward a global settlement worth billions of dollars with the three big distributors, along with Johnson & Johnson.”
Shapiro noted that his office is also looking at others across the pharmaceutical industry who may have violated the law and profited off of the suffering in Pennsylvania.
“But we can’t lose sight of the fact that this crisis isn’t just about dollars and cents,” he said. “It’s about life and health in regular Pennsylvania. We need to step up our efforts on addiction treatment and prevention to reduce the human toll this crisis has taken on our communities every single day. I see it. I feel it. I’ve had people cry in my arms telling me about a loved one lost. And I’m determined to continue to work with you to address this crisis.”