Gov. Wolf to issue statewide disaster declaration in Pa. opioid epidemic


Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf

Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf (AP photo )

Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday will issue a disaster declaration in Pennsylvania.

But it won't be a routine step before bad weather and relief efforts that follow. 

For the first time in state history, the announcement will be made for a public health crisis and the ongoing opioid epidemic killing thousands of Pennsylvania residents each year.

The worsening crisis grew more than 30 percent in a year to 4,632 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. 

While some other states saw a decline in overdose deaths from May 2016 to May 2017, Pennsylvania recorded an 83 percent increase, according to a new analysis published Monday by Kaiser Health. The rise in Pennsylvania was largely attributed to fentanyl, which is in line with DEA statistics. 

Wolf at 2 p.m. tomorrow will issue an executive order during a press conference in his reception room at the Capitol, immediately allowing state officials to temporarily override regulations that prevent them from fighting the epidemic, a source close to the governor told PennLive. 

The source, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter before the governor's announcement, said Wolf has been encouraged by steps the Legislature has taken, such as the creation of prescription monitoring systems, and steps his own administration has taken like increasing the availability of the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone to first responders.

Those efforts will continue. But the governor also recognizes that despite those best efforts, the rates of overdose deaths has not budged.

The new declaration, essentially leveraging the powers of the state to act with more immediacy and flexibility as it would in response to a natural disaster, is simply intended to ensure that any remaining barriers to providing law enforcement, first responders, health care providers and government agencies the tools they need to battle the addiction crisis as effectively as they can, are removed.

Asked for specifics, the source said measures that could follow would include the re-issuance of the statewide standing order permitting any Pennsylvanian with concerns about a friend or relative to obtain a dose of Naloxone for emergency use at home, or permitting ambulance crews to leave doses of the drug behind in the event that patients refuse further treatment.

Pennsylvania would become at least the eighth state to declare some sort of emergency as a result of the opioid epidemic, joining Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia. In addition, President Donald J. Trump last fall declared the opioid crisis a federal public health emergency.