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What does ending the opioid epidemic in Philly look like during coronavirus times?

By Erin Flynn Jay

Owner at Flynn Media www.flynnmedia.com

Philadelphia has the highest overdose rate of any major city in America — in 2019, an average of more than three people a day died of drug overdoses here. Before the coronavirus ravaged the country, the opioid overdose epidemic was the biggest health crisis for many city officials and public health experts.

At the time of this report, the coronavirus pandemic and rioting following the George Floyd protests in Philly has taken top priority over the opioid crisis. Despite business closures, city curfews due to riots, cancellation of in-person treatment appointments and local addiction resources strained, the opioid crisis wages on.

A representative for Prevention Point Philadelphia (PPP), the nation’s largest syringe exchange, told NPR that during the first month of the city’s stay-at-home order, they handed out almost twice as much Narcan as usual. Narcan is a FDA-approved Nasal Spray used for the emergency treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose.

Prevention Pointworks to reduce the harms associated with drug use. PPP’s approach is called the “harm reduction” model because it meets people where they are in life and helps them protect themselves and others even if they continue to engage in risky behaviors.

A spokesperson for Prevention Point said Narcan is more essential than ever – overdoses continue to be a problem in our city. Even if someone is nervous about giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, delivering Narcan to someone experiencing an overdose can still save a life.

PPP Current Services:

  1. Syringe Services Program – providing services out the front door onto Kensington Avenue
  2. Essential Services & Medications – including PrEP & Hepatitis C treatment as well as Medication Assisted Treatment and other medication access
  3. Homeless Services – now at three locations to allow for social distancing – total of nearly 80 beds
  4. Public bathrooms and hand-washing stations – on Monmouth Street, accessible to the public (hand-washing station courtesy of Broad Street Ministry)
  5. Food Service
    • Overseeing Step Up to the Plate Kensington food service location, providing 5,000 meals a week to people experiencing homelessness, in partnership with Broad Street Ministry, Project HOME, SEAMAAC, and the City of Philadelphia (1 – 3 pm, Monday – Friday)
    • Grab and go breakfast (9 am, Monday – Friday)
  6. Overdose Prevention – distribution of free Narcan

Community activists say the decreased law enforcement due to the coronavirus has emboldened Kensington drug dealers, where open air drug sales and use are common.

More dealers working openly on the street has led to more fights over territory, which has led to more violence. Overall crime in Philadelphia and other major cities has gone down during the pandemic, yet gun violence has spiked

The nation is watching the legal fight brewing against a plan to open a supervised injection site here. Sen. Pat Toomey and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, both Pennsylvania Republicans, are the latest GOP lawmakers to opine.

GOP lawmakers filed an amicus brief last month supporting the U.S. Justice Department’s effort to shut down the site before it can ever open. The dispute over what would be the country’s first facility where people could use illegal drugs under medical supervision continues. The other eight Republicans in the state’s House delegation and Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) joined the brief, which argues that supervised injection sites violate federal law.

The case is currently pending in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and is being watched as a potential landmark for similar efforts nationwide.   

Ronda Goldfein, vice president of Safehouse, the nonprofit pushing to open the site, told the Inquirer the issue should not be politicized.

Safehouse and its supporters argue that allowing people to use drugs under supervision can save lives amid an opioid epidemic that has killed more than 3,000 in this city over the last three years. These sites have been used for decades in Canada and Europe.

Critics worry that such sites could concentrate drug use in certain areas and trigger more drug-related violence, though studies suggest crime does not increase around the facilities. There have been neighborhood protests against the proposal in South Philly.

William McSwain, the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia, has called it “a radical experiment that would invite thousands of people onto its property for the purpose of injecting illegal drugs.”

Opposing sides on this issue will not seek common ground anytime soon. It is also clear coronavirus has altered the city’s opioid addiction, adding new dangers including drug turf fights and an increase in related gun violence.   

With in-person treatment facilities shuttered, it would be wise for community activists to increase their patrols in hard hit areas like Kensington, but is the coronavirus deterring activists from volunteering to stem this crisis in their neighborhoods?      

How can the public help to abet this crisis as the city implements nightly curfews to stem the rioting and looting?

  1. Protective Equipment: donate masks, gowns, gloves, and thermometers (if unable to buy/donate them, making them for Prevention Point participants is an option, too) – Prevention Point determined they need $200,000 of equipment, just to outfit staff for the next four months.
  2. Financial donations: donations from the public allow Prevention Point to buy much-needed equipment such as those listed above, and other essentials for their clients https://ppponline.org/donate.
  3. Non-perishable food which can provided in grab-and-go bags such as snacks, cereal, protein bars, etc.
  4. Amazon Wish List: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/19ZUTJ7ZLM7BV?fbclid=IwAR0XPmpwxmKQISWZ6y0wtAizrypa1XykxfTNHsig6MKVhtO1iyhF9cS1Q1Q

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David Sherwin

3 Comments

  1. Sheila Fox on June 9, 2020 at 11:07 pm

    A great aeticle!
    I am planning on writing my article soon.

  2. Lola oladapo on June 10, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    I am torn over the issue of supervised drug use facilities. I wouldn’t want something like that in my community either and I just think it sends the wrong message. I think we have to attack this issue at its root and work up. We should be going after BIG Pharma that started all us this in the first place. I have heard of several cities filing lawsuit against Big Pharma to force them to cover the expanses associated with the treatment of those addicted. We need to start there before we start opening drug assisted facilities in my opinion.

    • David Sherwin on June 11, 2020 at 5:32 pm

      Thank you so much for your comments Lola. Supervised drug use facilities are definitely controversial. It’s a shame it has come to this… but as you mentioned.. we have not resolved the root causes of the problem. This can be said for many issues around the country. It seems Big Pharma did act like a “legalized” drug dealer and they should be brought to justice. One of the reasons Pivedite was founded was to help create a dialogue around some of these controversial solutions to ending social problems. Take care.

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