Amid general rise in overdose deaths, Philadelphia moves to address recent surge



    Philadelphia police are investigating nine suspected overdose deaths in Kensington that occurred between Friday and Sunday. Six of the deaths under scrutiny happened in a single day.

    Despite a general increase in overdose deaths around the region in recent years, the spikes are still unusual, experts said. 

    “In my history of being involved in drug treatment for almost 45 years, this is pretty much … as bad as it gets,” said Roland Lamb, deputy commissioner for the city’s department of behavioral health and intellectual disability services. “I haven’t heard anything like this, with the exception of the initial outbreak of the fentanyl in 2006.”

    Lamb, who’s awaiting more details from the medical examiner’s office and others on the possible causes of these recent overdoses, referred to a potent synthetic opioid that recently has been cut into some batches of heroin. Addition of the fetanyl can increase the risk of an overdose, often without a user knowing that the heroin has been altered.

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    As the death toll mounts, the city has stressed that services are available for people seeking treatment who are uninsured or underinsured, Lamb said. And other community-based groups — including Prevention Point and the Recovery Center — are also important resources.

    Prevention Point, a public health group and syringe exchange, operates in the heart of the area where many of the overdoses are taking place.

    Director Jose Benitez, who said the city typically experiences two to three overdose deaths a day, said he’s not sure what’s causing the latest surge, but he recalled Nov. 17 as an especially rough day with an unusual number of calls for help. Five people died of overdoses that day, he said, amid about 50 overdose incidents reported throughout the city.

    One way Benitez and others are trying to combat the problem is through getting more nalaxone kits into the community and training more people how to use them.

    “So, two or three weeks ago when we had the 50 overdose incidents, we gave out 75 nalaxone kits to high-risk people in a day. And that is a lot,” he said.

    Nalaxone, if administered quickly enough, can reverse on the spot a potentially fatal overdose. Benitez and Lamb both say that one challenge is the high cost of the kits — about $75 for a pack of two.

    Lamb, who said his department has already spent more than $500,000 to fund trainings and provide kits this year, said it’s not enough.

    Mayor Jim Kenney recently announced the creation of an overdose task force for the city.

    Benitez said he’s hoping that will produce a more organized, real-time response mechanism to spikes in drug fatalities. That’s important, he said, as Philadelphia is on pace to have more than 700 overdose deaths this year.

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