On March 31, 2021, Berks County Commissioners and a panel of experts gave an update on the opioid crisis in the county during the COVID-19 pandemic. While much of the news wasn’t good, with an unfortunate increase in overdose deaths, presenters stressed that treatment and support remain available in the county.
Speakers included: County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt; Acting Berks County Coroner Jonn M. Hollenbach; Berks County District Attorney John Adams; Council on Chemical Abuse (COCA) Executive Director Stanley Papademetriou; COCA Community Programs Specialist; and Chief of the Division of Addiction Medicine at Tower Health, Dr. William Santoro.
According to Hollenbach, the county suffered a record number of overdoses in 2020, with 130 confirmed deaths, up from 126 the previous year, and far outreaching 2018’s 94 confirmed drug deaths.
While addiction is always a multifaceted issue, Hollenbach said the rise in overdose deaths is due in large part to drug fentanyl, which is often being mixed with other illicit drugs.
“If it wasn’t for fentanyl the number of deaths would be significantly less,” Hollenbach said. “The illicit drug trade is Russian roulette. People might think they’re purchasing cocaine but they really don’t know what they’re getting. Fentanyl is getting mixed with everything.”
Because fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, a small amount can result in an overdose. Often, users are not aware that an illicit drug contains fentanyl. Learn more from the Center for Disease Control about fentanyl.
The impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 brought on social and economic hardships that were particularly detrimental for people struggling with addiction. According to Santoro, social isolation has been a key factor in worsening the addiction crisis, because people who struggle with addiction rely on mutual support for recovery.
“COVID has been horrible for addiction,” said Santoro. “We have more patients who need treatment than ever before.”
Treatment and recovery during the pandemic
The good news is that help has remained available throughout the pandemic. While this includes in-person and residential treatment services, Santoro emphasized the importance of telehealth options, which have made it possible for people to access treatment without leaving their homes. Similarly, many recovery support groups have continued to hold meetings through virtual formats, as well.
How is COCA responding?
As the coordinating agency for publicly supported drug and alcohol programming in Berks County, the Council on Chemical Abuse provides prevention education, intervention and recovery for those impacted by the opioid epidemic.
We continues to offer free Narcan kits to reverse opioid overdoses; our Blue Cares initiative to encourage individuals to seek treatment following an overdose, and the Warm Hand-off Program, which provides treatment intervention to individuals who enter hospitals with substance use disorders.
Click here to learn about our prevention education programs that teach children and teens the skills needed to avoid drug abuse.
Read a March 2021 Reading Eagle article about the commissioner’s update
Watch the full update below: