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Overdose deaths drop dramatically, bringing hope that awareness is working

Renatta Signorini

On Jan. 2, Chera Lynn Keselich got help for the first time.

She was sick from heroin withdrawal and out of options.

“I had been talking about it, but I wasn’t super ready yet,” she said. “But you’re never ready.”

While the Greensburg woman spent 2018 getting clean on a methadone maintenance program and releasing her emotions through art, scores of others succumbed to a drug addiction in Westmoreland County. Officials are encouraged by a 36 percent drop in drug overdose deaths this year, but they know the epidemic is raging on.

As of early Friday, 103 people had died from accidental drug overdoses, and 21 additional deaths are being investigated as such, according to Westmoreland County Coroner statistics.

Compared to the 193 drug overdose deaths in 2017, the reduction is a sign to some that awareness and other efforts are working. Between 2007 and 2016, 825 lives were claimed by drug overdoses in Westmoreland County. The powerful opioid fentanyl has been the top cause of overdose deaths since 2016.

“There’s just so much more awareness, and it’s becoming more of a targeted issue that absolutely has to be addressed by the community as a whole,” said Common Pleas Judge Christopher Feliciani, who runs drug treatment court with Judge Meagan Bilik-Defazio.

One day in December, Keselich, 30, sat before a blank canvas propped on a wooden easel in her small kitchen. She squeezed globs of acrylic paints — purple and teal — on a palette and turned on music.

She’s one of 700 patients at MedMark Treatment Centers in Hempfield after getting hooked on heroin when a legitimate painkiller prescription was cut off.

Keselich is making amends with family and friends, but she still struggles with the guilt of what she did to them.

“I feel so horrible. I can’t believe I became that person,” she said.

Officials who talked to the Tribune-Review about the reduced number of deaths agreed on a few factors that could be saving lives:

Availability of naloxone

The Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission in 2018 distributed more than 1,600 kits containing the opioid overdose reversal drug. The nasal spray is available at most pharmacies without a prescription in Pennsylvania, at little or no cost for those with insurance.

“There’s more ways than ever to get it,” said Austin Hixson, a certified recovery specialist.

Officials believe drug overdose ambulance calls are down because more people who use drugs have access to naloxone, but there is no way to track how many peer-to-peer reversals are occurring.

Access to treatment

There are methadone clinics, places for drug detoxification and outpatient treatment as well as inpatient beds in the county. Those expanded options compared to a few years ago, combined with a targeted effort to meet drug overdose survivors outside of office walls, could be factoring in. Mobile case managers at Excela Health’s three hospitals in the county are connecting patients with readily-available treatment.

Caseworkers through the commission meet with overdose survivors anywhere they are, said Elizabeth Comer, Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission’s director of clinical and case management services.

Bilik-Defazio has started ordering drug evaluations immediately when defendants are brought into her courtroom on a bench warrant. That gives her an opportunity to parole someone directly from jail to treatment sooner, she said.

“You hope that the majority of them will go,” she said.

Awareness, education
and prevention

From billboards to community forums and church outreach to school curriculum, the awareness of the problem has increased through various efforts such as the county’s Drug Overdose Task Force.

“It’s been a topic of discussion for quite some time,” said Brian Kephart, executive clinical director at Strive Health in Greensburg. “This disease likes secrecy, so, when it starts to become known” that has an impact.

Combined approach

“It takes all of us working together,” said Tim Phillips, director of the task force. If officials hadn’t banded together, “I think it would be a whole hell of a lot worse. … But, until the number is at zero, I’m not satisfied.”

The county’s criminal justice system has seen a shift, and now judges are more attuned to treatment-focused punishment. But whether the downward trend will continue — or if something else will take the deadly drug’s place — is yet to be seen.

For Keselich, her community is with her Instagram followers . She regularly posts photos of her creativity, including paintings she will give as Christmas presents to her family during a January celebration.

With the kitchen window open, Pink Floyd melted into the Fugees on her phone. Dozens of paint brushes sat on the table, but Keselich worked with a pallet knife to get the kind of texture she wanted.

“I love everything about painting, creating it,” she said. “It’s so relaxing. If it wasn’t for this, I can’t say where I’d be.

“If I wasn’t sober, I don’t think I’d be alive,” she said, smiling and laughing. “So I’m alive.”

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter @byrenatta.


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