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Westmoreland County's Drug Overdose Task Force Aims to Decrease Overdose Deaths

By Nancy Kennedy

Westmoreland County is one of western Pennsylvania's premier locations, rich with assets: a bounty of natural resources, pleasant communities, popular historical attractions, plenty of recreational activities, a collection of highly regarded colleges and universities and some of the regions cultural gems. It's a popular setting that offers lots of options to residents, from bucolic farmlands to picturesque villages and urban living. Westmoreland County has a proud past, having played a significant role in early American history, and it is thriving today, with a growing population of 365,000 people.

But, Westmoreland County is also a county with a public health crisis.

Drug abuse and drug overdoses have reached epidemic proportions in the region and are taking a tremendous toll, impacting not only individuals and families but also the community as a whole. Overdose from illegal and prescription drugs has been the leading cause of death among accidental deaths in the County for seven of the last eight years. Last year, there were 126 overdose deaths in Westmoreland County, compared to 57 in 2010 – an astonishing number, but so much more than a number - behind every statistic, there is a personal story of tragedy, deep grief and ruined lives.

As in many counties across the nation, substance use disorder is a major public health problem in Westmoreland County, where it is taking a toll on the local economy, public services, businesses and public safety, and affecting every resident, whether they recognize it or not. The problem is complex, massive and daunting, but the good news is that it is more than matched by the expertise, energy and determination of those who seek to bring it to an end. Two of those warriors are Tim Phillips, Director, Drug Overdose Task Force, and Chuck Chappell, Coordinator of Community Prevention Services for Westmoreland Community Action

The Drug Overdose Task Force is striving to engage the community in addressing substance use by offering public education through community events, coalition building, and a colorful, informative, user-friendly web site (www.GETINwestmoreland.info).   "The mission of the task force is to support and facilitate community efforts to decrease the number of overdose deaths in our county," Phillips explains. "The incidence of overdose has been climbing dramatically since 2002; it has risen by 290% and is continuing to climb, and we're hearing from people in all walks of life that they need help."  To that end, the Task Force partners with Westmoreland's Drug & Alcohol Commission to offer classes in the administration of the opioid overdose antidote Naloxone for lay persons and public service professionals. They're also facilitating training for medical professionals and providing technical assistance to agencies and community groups.

One of the most innovative elements of the task force's prevention efforts is a set of "tool kits" – resources, customized for various sectors of the community: business and industry / courts and law enforcement /education /healthcare /media /faith-based and grassroots organizations and the recovery community. These 'toolkits" contain programs and initiatives that offer solutions. They can be explored at www.GETINwestmoreland.info and downloaded for use.

Throughout the Commonwealth, and nationally, treatment options for those seeking long-term recovery has not kept up with the demand as the crisis has escalated, but here in Westmoreland there are plans to develop additional treatment resources. "Ideally, we'd like to offer treatment on demand," Phillips says. "But sometimes there is a delay because our resources are limited."

In 2019, Westmoreland Community Action launched a substance use Helpline with generous funding from the Allegheny Foundation (1-844-897-8927, 3:30-11 pm). Chappell says that all members of the Helpline staff are certified recovery specialists. "We work with people in addiction and those who are new to recovery. We can guide them to the support services and resources that will help them. Phillips describes that as a "warm handoff" – sending a client on to the right services, in a caring and supportive way." Chappell is pleased with the positive feedback their endeavors are generating. "We're seeing an increase in calls to the hotline," says Chappell. "Our outreach efforts are making connections. We 'll go anywhere – health fairs, churches, social events – to spread the word."

"Drug abuse is an equal opportunity destroyer; it affects people of all ages, from all social backgrounds. There are common factors, and one of them is a history of unresolved trauma, which can affect anyone. If you need help, don't be afraid or ashamed. You can private-message us on Facebook or call the hotline," says Chappell.

Phillips, Chappell and countless others in our region are committed to educating the public about substance use, and their message is one of hope. "We want people to understand that addiction is treatable," says Phillips. "It is NOT a death sentence. Many people get clean and remain clean, and go on to live healthy, productive lives. Unfortunately, there is a persistent stigma that says those who abuse drugs are doomed. It's simply not true. Treatment is available and recovery is possible."

To contact the Drug Overdose Task Force, visit www.GETINwestmoreland.info. To schedule a community education event or Naloxone training, call 724 -884 -9000, ext. 4450. Additional resources can be found at www.PASTOP.org

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