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Local officials talk opioid overdoses

International Awareness Day is Tuesday

Overdoses from opioids and other substances are at an all-time high, and as the number of drug-related deaths continues to rise, local and state officials are working to raise awareness about substance abuse.

They’re also urging people to get help to overcome addictions.

“Almost everyone has been affected by drug addiction one way or another,” said Cambria County District Attorney Greg Neugebauer. “Whether you yourself have faced problems with drugs or have a friend or loved one that is addicted, it impacts all of us.”

International Overdose Awareness Day is Tuesday, and to highlight the issue in Blair County, organizers will host an event at 2 p.m. today, Saturday, Aug. 28, at Trans4mation Church,

1001 S. First St. The event will include a candlelight vigil, live music, Lights of Love Lanterns and other activities.

On Tuesday, the Cambria County Drug Coalition will hold its fifth annual event at 7 p.m. at PNG Park, 90 Johns St., Johnstown. The ceremony will include an empty chair memorial for every life lost in the past five years. Family members of the deceased are encouraged to bring a picture of their loved one to place on their respective chair.

“It’s really a memorial service to remember the lives we lost and support the families still grieving,” Kauffman said.

Officials hope these events can continue to break the stigma and spread the message about the dangers of addiction.

“There is still a lot of work to do,” Neugebauer said. “Until addiction is completely gone, everyone is going to keep working hard.”

An emerging epidemic

Despite ongoing efforts, overdoses continue to rise, said Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks.

“The whole country has been besieged by overdose deaths, and they really ramped up five years ago,” he said. “The number of overdoses, unfortunately, are up every year. Lockdowns due to COVID have only exacerbated that.”

Blair County has had 30 overdose deaths to date in 2021, and county officials said they are expecting that number to surpass 50 by the end of the year.

There were 56 drug overdose deaths in 2020, Blair County Coroner Patricia Ross said, and the vast majority of those individuals ranged in age from 30 to 40 years old.

Blair County has witnessed a steep climb in the number of overdose deaths after 31 people died in 2019, though Ross said heroin was much more prevalent at that time.

The majority of deaths over the past two years, she said, can be blamed on methamphetamine and fentanyl.

“They are just killer drugs,” Ross said.

Individuals who overdose are more susceptible to overdosing again as their body’s tolerance to a drug greatly decreases. A dose that an individual may have safely used before can suddenly become fatal.

“It’s just like a bee sting,” Ross said. “Once you get stung, the body is set to have another reaction.”

But drug abusers also gain a tolerance to the drugs, officials said, causing them to need higher doses to receive the same effect.

Path to addiction

Professionals define drug addiction as a chronic disease that is compulsive and interferes with a person’s ability to make decisions.

While people can make the choice to first use a drug, they can’t control the changes in their brain and the urge to continue using illicit substances.

“Recognizing substance use disorder as a disease is so important,” said Natalie Kauffman. “We’re really trying to reduce the stigma around it. It’s not a moral choice — it’s a disease in the brain.”

Kauffman, projects coordinator at the Cambria County Drug Coalition, said there are numerous paths people take to end up being addicted to drugs.

Many opioids, such as fentanyl, codeine and oxycodone, are used for medical purposes, and even after following the instructions, patients still struggle to get off of those drugs.

Other individuals look to drugs to cope with stress or anxiety.

“Pathways to addiction are so vast, especially with opioid addiction,” Kauffman said. “They are highly addictive, and any time you’re ingesting these substances, it has a huge impact on how the body functions.”

Addiction prevention

“We need to focus on prevention, because if we can do our job there, then we wouldn’t need treatment and rehabilitation,” said Deborah Fowler of Carrolltown, president and founder of the Remembering Adam program.

Fowler’s son, Adam, died in 1998 after a heroin overdose, and his death emphasized a need for drug prevention in the area.

It is never too early to start drug prevention education, officials said, and the focus has been narrowed to students in the junior and senior high levels.

“It is really crucial to provide education in middle school and carry through high school,” Fowler said. “Kids can be molded in middle school, and that is when we really want to provide them the tools and resources to make healthy decisions. Then we have to continue with that into high school and encourage them to keep making good decisions.”

In the past, many programs focused on telling kids drugs are bad, but maybe not explaining why they are harmful.

“We’re trying to emphasize life resiliency and life coping skills,” Kauffman said. “We’re teaching kids not to say no to drugs, but to say yes to themselves. We want people to value their bodies, because what you put in your body matters.”

Virtual learning due to COVID-19 left groups struggling to reach students.

In response, the Remembering Adam program created a digital platform to provide students with information on making healthy decisions.

The virtual program has about 150 students enrolled, Fowler said, and she is expecting the number to triple in the next year. About 1,500 students are enrolled in the Remembering Adam program overall, she said.

Fighting back

From organizations like the Blair County Drug Task Force and the Push Out the Pusher movement, law enforcement officials said they fight to root out sources of drugs.’

“We have protocols in place to locate the source,” Weeks said. “The only thing worse than evil men is the indifference by good men against evil. We are aggressive in investigating drug trafficking, and we are working every overdose back to the source.”

Officials said that many of the larger drug busts in the area begin with confidential informants, and in almost all cases, their identity is kept safe.

“People that come forward really help the community at large,” Neugebauer said. “If you see something, say something. If someone has heard of any type of crime, it greatly benefits your community by telling law enforcement what you know.”

Treatment options

Kauffman said every county has an authority that can connect medical professionals with individuals who are ready for treatment and recovery.

Programs are also available to help individuals detox safely and comfortably, she said.

“There are many pathways to recover,” Kauffman said. “Help is available, and it’s just a phone call away.”

Training is also available to educate and provide community members with naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, a medicine that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

Many of the training and Naloxone distributions are free to the public, she said.

“Overdose is completely preventable,” Kauffman said. “Naloxone is a nasal atomizer, and it’s so easy to administer. It can save lives and give people a second chance.”

Mirror Staff Writer Calem Illig is at 814-946-7535.

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