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Wolf Signs Disaster Emergency Over Opioid Crisis

Mel Evans
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's announcement that the opioid crisis will be treated as a public health emergency could make more resources available for addiction treatment.

*UPDATED: Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 at 4:35 p.m. 

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has declared Pennsylvania's opioid addiction epidemic a public health emergency and ordered a command center set up to treat the crisis like it would a natural disaster.

Wolf signed the order Wednesday. His office says seven other states have taken similar actions to address the problem.

“We know that this crisis has taken far too many lives, it has broken far too many families, it has decimated far too many communities,” Wolf said. “And it has gone on far too long.”

The declaration will allow officials to bypass some laws and regulations if they believe them to hinder the effort to fight the crisis.

A command center is to be set up at the state's emergency management headquarters in Harrisburg. Wolf's office said the move provides wider access to the state's prescription drug monitoring program and makes it easier for medical professionals to get people into treatment more quickly.

It also will let emergency responders to dispense the overdose antidote naloxone when responding to a call for help.

Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker said a big step in addressing the crisis would be opening communication between mental health providers and substance abuse treatment facilities.

“Right now the laws prohibit that kind of conversation unless the patient actively consents to doing those things,” Hacker said. “Portions of the law make it impossible to move forward in those areas.”

Lucy Garrighan, founder of Jade Wellness Center in the Pittsburgh area, said she hopes the declaration will prioritize mandated treatment after an overdose.

“Just buying Narcan and Naloxone doesn’t help unless we treat people after their incident,” Garrighan said. “If somebody continues to overdose, we need to get them to treatment and help instead of continuously providing more and more Naloxone.”

Garrighan is critical of what she calls a late response by the Wolf administration to structurally address the epidemic.

However, Wolf said this declaration is a continuation of efforts made by his team to address the crisis, such as providing first responders across the commonwealth with Naloxone.

Pennsylvania suffered more than 4,600 fatal drug overdoses in 2016, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The state's rate of drug overdoses is more than twice the national average.

*This story was updated to include comments and reaction from local health officials. The Associated Press contributed to this report.