The drug epidemic that has engulfed Washington County has tentacles that extend well beyond its borders, Gene Vittone lamented.
“Every day, we’re confronted by a national epidemic,” the county’s district attorney said Wednesday. “In Pennsylvania, approximately 15 die each day from an overdose, and there are no signs of stopping. It takes leaders in all communities to eliminate deaths.”
Vittone also is the force behind the Washington County Opioid Overdose Task Force, a coalition of government agencies, health-care providers and treatment providers that he launched in October. He spoke during a ceremony celebrating 55 first responders from the county at the Elks Lodge in Washington.
The first responders – police, fire officials and emergency medical personnel – were honored for their work combating drug use. All had saved at least one life in the past year by providing naloxone (Narcan) to an overdose victim.
All of the county’s police departments and emergency medical units are equipped with Narcan. Many fire departments carry it, as well.
“There were 177 lives saved with Narcan,” said Cheryl Andrews, executive director of the Washington County Drug and Alcohol Commission. “That’s incredible, especially considering some people live in remote areas.”
Overdose deaths have risen dramatically in Washington County in recent years. There were 109 last year, compared with 73 in 2015. A quarter-century ago, in 1992, there were two.
Opioid use has been rampant here, and heroin is a major culprit. But Lynn Mirigian, a project director in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Pharmacy, said during the program Wednesday that “heroin is no longer the most common drug in overdoses. It’s fentanyl.”
The county, Vittone and Andrews said, is attacking the problem on many fronts. Training first responders is a priority. Treating and educating inmates with substance-use issues is another. Advising those ready to be released from jail on how to avoid returning to a drug culture – and returning to jail – is certainly a goal.
“We’re trying to break the catch-and-release cycle,” Vittone said.
The county also plans to implement a program at the jail June 1 that will include treatment with Vivitrol. It is an injectable prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and eliminates cravings for them for 30 days. Andrews said Vivitrol is expensive, about $1,000 per monthly dose, and nine to 12 months of use is recommended. But she said the medication cost is covered by some insurances and will be given for free to inmates who are leaving the correctional facility.
First responders from 24 units were honored, including 12 fire departments and nine police departments. So were the county’s adult probation, juvenile probation and public safety offices.
The Washington Fire Department had the largest number of individual honorees, 10. Charleroi Regional police (six) and Donora police (four) were second and third.
Washington fire captains Gerald Coleman and Nick Blumer were credited with administering the most life-saving doses of Narcan, nine and eight, respectively.
“Narcan has been really effective,” Blumer said, before nodding toward Billie Morris. She is the owner of Washington Ambulance & Chair, an emergency transport service.
“We can’t do what we do without Ambulance & Chair,” Blumer said. “We don’t transport to the hospital. We rely on them.”
Ryan Frazee of Washington County Public Safety was among those lauded. He helps coordinate the distribution of Narcan and is a Morris Township volunteer firefighter. He said he saved overdose victims “at least a half-dozen times in the past year.”
More than 100 people, overall, received certificates and pins for their work combating opioid overdoses.
“First responders don’t get the appreciation they deserve,” Vittone said, on a day that they did.