City combating opioid epidemic as death toll rises

The city hosted four community conversations for residents to hear what is being done about the opioid epidemic.


The Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic hosted a series of discussions across the city with updates on how the city is fighting the epidemic.

The task force has been pursuing 18 initiatives to combat the epidemic since last May. One such initiative is a potential comprehensive user engagement site, or safe injection site, which largely overshadowed the conversation that happened in Northeast Philadelphia.

As the Times reported before, there are no plans for a site to open, and there are 17 other initiatives underway — as was made explicitly clear at the beginning of meetings following the Northeast one.

Each meeting started with a story from Ramon Cruz. He narrated how addiction largely governed his life from a young age, taking him in and out of jail.

“My mom used to always say, I was comfortable when you was in prison because I knew where you was at,” he said.

Cruz is three years sober now, and holds a steady job with a wife and kids.

“My mom sees me on the news and it’s not nothing bad anymore,” he said. “She’s at peace today.”

Cruz thanked city officials and everyone who worked to combat the epidemic, saying they served as motivation for him and everyone like him every day.

Meetings were presented by Thomas Farley of the Department of Health, Roland Lamb of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and Sharon Kopyc of Womanspace Ardmore.

“This is absolutely a health crisis,” Farley said. “Something awful, not something that is just routine.”

Final toxicology is still pending, but it is projected that more than 1,200 people died of drug overdose in Philadelphia in 2017. Farley said this is approximately four times bigger than the city’s homicide rate. The figure has outpaced the AIDS epidemic, which hit 935 in its worst year. Last year, there were 907 overdose-related deaths.

“It’s gotten much worse in the last few years,” Farley said.

The 18 initiatives were broken into four categories: prevention and education, treatment, overdose prevention and involvement of the criminal justice system. Thirteen of the recommendations are being implemented, while the rest are still in planning phases.

For prevention education, the task force created a multimedia campaign based on “Don’t take the risk.” It is meant to raise awareness that prescription painkillers can still be dangerous even if doctors prescribed them. It is also meant to educate doctors to ensure they are not over-prescribing prescription opioids.

“We refer to them as heroin in pill form,” Farley said.

Lamb spoke about the need to destigmatize those seeking help. Two of the initiatives, increasing provision of medication-assisted treatment and expanding treatment access and capacity, are meant to make it easier to seek help.

“People need to know and understand the importance of being able to have access to medication in order to address the issue of treatment,” he said.

There are 24 providers in 47 locations in the city that offer medication-assisted treatment. Of approximately 8,700 slots available for treatment, only about 6,600 are filled.

Demographics of overdose deaths were approximately 59 percent white, 24 percent black and 15 percent Latino.

Since July 1 of last year, the city has distributed 28,690 doses of naloxone, an overdose-reversing treatment, to law enforcement and other agencies and organizations.

The discussions took place at locations in Kensington, Northeast, North and South Philly.

To find details on each of the 18 recommendations, visit ••