HARISBURG, Pa. - The coronavirus pandemic is constantly making headlines, but the Pennsylvania Health Department is keeping a close eye on another public health crisis - the opioid and heroin epidemic.

Nearly 35,000. That's how many opioid overdoses sent Pennsylvanians to the ER in just over two years. It's a number that the state's top doctors are trying to bring down.

"The risk of overdose and withdrawal is high with populations, so we continue to seek opportunities to connect both patient populations to the care that they need," said Ashley Bolton, director of the Office of Drug Surveillance Misuse Prevention at the PA Department of Health.

The Wolf administration is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach, but the pandemic is hurting the effort.

"As of July 2021, we have seen nearly a 14% increase in overdose deaths statewide, which may still increase slightly over the next couple months of 2020 as death records continue to roll in," said Dr. Carrie Thomas Goetz, senior epidemiologist in the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Office.

Officials say more people began to self-prescribe opioids out of fear of going to the ER during the pandemic. The goal now is to bring those numbers down by increasing funding for local health departments.

"Because of that, there are a variety of different initiatives that health departments have taken on, including overdose fatality review committees, various education initiatives, different community engagement strategies, and post-overdose response teams," Bolton says.

One such initiative is the HOST program done right here in Lehigh County.

"The process is, first responders call HOST on the way to the emergency department as their transporting the victim and the HOST staff comes to the designated emergency department, meets the victim, screen and assess coordinate care into treatment as needed," Bolton says.

She says the program is seeing some success, but state health care leaders agree that much more needs to be done.

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