Authorities in Westmoreland continue hunt for solution to opioid epidemic

Sign up for one of our email newsletters.Updated 7 hours ago As a nationwide opioid addiction epidemic takes lives at every age and in every demographic, Westmoreland County officials are looking to young students as part of the solution. Three upcoming prevention-related...

Authorities in Westmoreland continue hunt for solution to opioid epidemic

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Updated 7 hours ago

As a nationwide opioid addiction epidemic takes lives at every age and in every demographic, Westmoreland County officials are looking to young students as part of the solution.

Three upcoming prevention-related events for students focus on in-school education to address the problem.

“We want to get a young person's perspective ... what they would do to stop this problem,” Greensburg police Chief Chad Zucco said.

Greensburg police this spring will hold several contests in the Greensburg Salem School District, he said. In Norwin, a prevention curriculum could be implemented in health classes next month. And underclassmen at all county high schools can start their own peer prevention programs with help from a grant from the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission.

Since late 2013, county officials have made a concerted effort to attack the epidemic that has led to hundreds of overdose deaths and skyrocketing costs to taxpayer-funded public service agencies.

Overdose deaths in Westmoreland County continue to set records.

The coroner has confirmed that 144 people died of drug overdoses last year, and 28 deaths are being investigated as such. Combined, that is nearly double the number in 2014.

Between 2012 and 2015, 377 people died of overdoses in Westmoreland, according to coroner statistics. More than 3,500 people across Pennsylvania died from overdoses in 2015, and the 2016 tally is expected to be higher.

“It's a unique problem” that doesn't discriminate based on age, District Attorney John Peck said. “There's people who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s.”

No one is sure how to reverse the trend.

“People are being made aware in schools and, hopefully, families of the seriousness,” Peck said. “I'm not certain what's going to make a difference.”

Officials in the Norwin School District hope that implementing a new curriculum developed by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Discovery Education will produce results for seventh- and eighth-graders there. Health classes will incorporate the Operation Prevention curriculum, which will focus on statistics and data to help students understand the problem, said Tim McCabe, assistant principal at the high school. Parents learned about the pilot program during a seminar in January.

“Some of the things these people really need to know is the seriousness of it,” McCabe said. “There's a lot of denial — we don't have a drug problem here. But we do.”

In Greensburg, police are looking to high school students, Zucco said.

The winner or winners of an essay contest — with a $2,000 grant from the drug and alcohol commission — could see their ideas about how to stop the drug epidemic implemented by police, Zucco said. Middle school students will have a poster contest, and elementary-age children will have a coloring contest, he said.

“I think there always could be more awareness,” Zucco said. “I honestly don't know what the answer is.”

While public awareness is increasing, it can be difficult to get through to people whose lives aren't directly impacted by the crisis, said Elizabeth Comer, the drug and alcohol commission's director of clinical and case management services.

But once that impact hits, “that's where people really get invested,” said Comer, whose agency last year distributed 1,181 kits of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug.

“I think hearing it in the news all the time, people realize that it really is a problem,” she said. “We have a lot of great systems in place, and we have a lot of great organizations who want to make a difference.”

Many new efforts and requirements were put into place in the past year to attack the epidemic:

• Police officers, firefighters, schools and citizens across the state have been armed with naloxone kits.

• Drug abuse help lines are directing callers to treatment options.

• Doctors and pharmacists are now required to consult a database when they prescribe or fill prescriptions for patients as a way to end doctor shopping.

• An inpatient treatment facility in Mt. Pleasant opened in 2016.

• A youth summit for students from all county high schools was held this month by the drug and alcohol commission to show them how to start a drug prevention program or activity in their school.

It's a multi-faceted approach that those on the forefront hope will work.

“I'm proud of what our county is doing,” Comer said.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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