Pa. keeps its guard up after feared drug surge

Posted: September 09, 2013

Earlier this summer, state officials braced for a public health crisis on drug corners. Fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that mimics heroin and drives up the risk of fatal overdoses, was showing up in autopsies across Pennsylvania.

By late June, at least 50 deaths had been linked to the drug, including in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Bucks Counties.

Known as "drop dead" on some streets, fentanyl is a prescription drug often used to relieve severe or chronic pain in cancer patients. It can be taken as a pill, a patch, or injected intravenously. It is often sold in the same packaging as heroin, and the two substances have the same color and consistency. Drug experts have said it can be up to 100 times stronger than heroin.

The last time fentanyl surged onto the streets, in 2006, it killed more than 250 people in Philadelphia alone. To prevent a similar outbreak, health officials responded this summer by assembling a task force aimed at improving the statewide collection of data on fentanyl deaths and overdoses, as well as streamlining the state's response to the threat.

"We knew we needed to act quickly, knowing the history," said Kenneth J. Martz, director of treatment, prevention, and intervention for the state Department of Drug and Alcohol programs.

Gary Tennis, secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol programs, also made a public plea to heroin addicts in late June, imploring them to seek treatment rather than risk death.

In the end, the full-blown outbreak officials feared never came, and there have been no additional deaths linked to fentanyl since June. The task force has since broadened its focus to other drugs and is working with federal, state, and local officials, emergency responders, and law enforcement groups to establish a process for collecting real-time data on drug overdoses across Pennsylvania.

In the coming months, the task force will work on making a number of changes to the state's handling of overdoses, including encouraging coroners to report suspected overdoses immediately instead of waiting for full toxicology results, establishing a program that would funnel surviving overdose victims directly to drug and alcohol programs after they have been stabilized, and making reporting databases more accessible.

"We want to make changes that will address risk behavior as well," Martz said. "This isn't just about tracking every death. We also want to make sure that if a blip comes up with any kind of drug, that there's a process in place to address it."

A real-time data-collection process would allow the department to quickly identify when overdose trends are developing in every part of the state and to give law enforcement and emergency responders the information they need to address the crisis, Martz said.

In the case of fentanyl, emergency responders may need high doses of Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, to counteract overdoses. They may also need to know to be careful not to make skin contact with used fentanyl patches, which can cause serious side effects.

"Many addicts don't even realize they have it, and will unknowingly take too much," said Martz. "It's not something to be played with."

In 2006, fentanyl-laced heroin flooded the drug market in cities across America, causing deaths in Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, as well as Philadelphia, Camden, and other East Coast cities. That July, after police and federal agents took down a major supplier in Pennsauken, deaths from fentanyl began to drop off.

The man charged with running that heroin mill, Jaime Castellar, was eventually sentenced to six years in federal prison.

Contact Allison Steele at 610-313-8113 or

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