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Carbon leaders meet with Pa. officials to talk about addictions

Fatal drug overdoses in Pennsylvania were decreasing annually prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But 2020 statistics suggest that one widespread health crisis fed the other. Pennsylvania had more than 5,000 overdose deaths for the first time since 2017.

“The entire time we were dealing with COVID-19, we were still really grappling with an addiction crisis. These numbers have proven that the crisis hasn’t gotten better and we need to double down on our efforts,” said Jen Smith, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Smith visited Carbon Monroe-Pike Drug & Alcohol Commission Tuesday for a round table discussion. She said it is important to talk with the agencies who deal directly with people battling addiction. Each county in the commonwealth has variations on its approach to combating overdose deaths.

“We look to places like this to say, ‘what’s working for you? How might we be able to share that information with other regions of the state,’?” she said.

During the pandemic, Carbon-Monroe-Pike was a leader in the transition to offering services online, Smith said. When restrictions made it difficult to get documents signed, the agency came up with a way to get them signed online, minimizing the disruption of service.

Smith said she also knew that by visiting Carbon-Monroe-Pike, Drake would include her network of local agencies battling addiction. Carbon County Adult Probation, Mental Health And Disability Services, St. Luke’s, and state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, contributed to the discussion.

The participants discussed programs and issues underway around the county - like prescription dropboxes and a youth advisory council.

Another big development has been the county’s participation in the Attorney General’s Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative. Attorney General Josh Shapiro was in Jim Thorpe earlier this month as officers learned about the program - and officials said an officer referred someone for treatment that night.

Carbon County did not see a large rise in overdose deaths during the pandemic, but Jamie Drake, executive director of Carbon Monroe Pike Drug & Alcohol Commission, said it has changed the agency’s ability to work with their clients.

Some people couldn’t engage as well with online sessions. Others found it to be more convenient, and now have to set aside more time to attend sessions in person. There are still fears that a spike in cases could lead to the return of some restrictions.

“We’re ready if we have to go back to doing those things, but ultimately we feel that face to face is best in a counseling situation,” Drake said.

Smith is currently working on a long-range plan which will guide the state’s drug and alcohol services for the next four years. She said the experiences of local agencies using technology for counseling will help decide how the state uses it going forward.

Some people may not feel comfortable speaking with their counselor over the phone while sitting in their home if it is not a safe space for them.

“It’s really about navigating what’s changed as a result of the pandemic and trying to utilize all of the benefits of it, but address the challenges that come with that,” Smith said.

Battling addiction takes a wide ranging approach. Smith there is no one size fits all solution for every county in the commonwealth.

“Regardless of how different it looks across the state, we need the flexibility and ability to implement the strategies that are going to work best,” Smith said.

Jen Smith, right, Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs visited Carbon County on Tuesday to hear from local agencies battling the addiction crisis. She was joined by Steve Ross, Special Assistant to the Secretary. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Kerri Quick of St. Luke's University Health Network shared her experience working in the Panther Valley during the roundtable discussion. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS