Fatal opioid overdoses are expected to dip in Philadelphia for first time in five years. So does that mean it can no longer be called The City of Brotherly Drugs?
The Philadelphia Badlands is an area in North Philly that runs from Kensington Avenue to the east and Broad Street to the west, and between Hunting Park Avenue to the north and York Street to the south. It mostly coincides with the neighborhoods of Fairhill, Glenwood, Hunting Park, Harrowgate, Stanton, North Central, West Kensington, Hartranft, and Kensington. But to most folks it's simply Kensington.
The name Badlands either springs from former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez's 1995 novel Third and Indiana or East Division Narcotics Task Force head Lt. John Gallo, who conducted ride-alongs with the likes of Ted Koppel, Geraldo Rivera and 48 Hours. Whatever the case, the description fit. So the name stuck.
Once upon a time this section of Philadelphia was a center of heavy industry. It's now known for vacant warehouses, tightly-packed strips of brick row houses and the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast.
In fact, the market is called the Walmart of Heroin. Folks stop in for the ease and the convenience, as well as the rock-bottom prices. Here, however, the goods you get can kill you. Just ask the families of the over 1200 who died of overdoses during 2017.
A Philadelphia Rebound?
Philadelphia city officials expect opioid-fueled drug overdose deaths to be down for the first time in five years. That's right. The city's on track to tally 1100 overdose deaths for 2018. That represents a 9% decrease from the year before. And while the number is still alarmingly high (and likely ensures Philadelphia County retains the highest overdose rate of any of the 10 most populous counties in America), city officials are declaring it a milestone.
“We’re certainly optimistic that this is a turning point,” said city official Brian Abernathy. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Hardly. In fact, city public health data underscores Abernathy’s cautionary tone.
From 2007 through 2013, the number of annual overdose deaths hovered around 450. In 2014, the fatality rate exceeded 600. And the rate continued climbing till it exceeded 1200 in 2017. Much of the climb can be attributed to the deadly and unpredictable fentanyl that now laces the city's drug supply. The rest can be attributed to simple supply and demand. For it only stands to good reason that suppliers would step in for such ever-increasing demand.
But officials now think that 2017 will be the high-water mark in Philadelphia’s opioid crisis. And they hope that preliminary projections for this year indicate the epidemic is finally beginning to turn the corner.
"It’s a good trend," said Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director of Health and Human Services. "Every life saved is one that is cherished by family and friends."
Keep Calm/Carry Narcan
Gladstein suspects that the overdose-reversing drug naloxone has helped Philadelphia reduce its overdose death rate. City figures show this year alone Narcan was administered 3000 times, mostly by paramedics. But police officers and SEPTA officials also used it. And that 3000 doesn't count the bystanders, family members and others who used the medication to save the life of someone overdosing on opioids.
The city also has had mobile units providing medication-assisted treatment to those struggling with opioid addiction. Even city prisons are now expanding the use of prescriptions that combat withdrawal symptoms. Furthermore, officials say the city is planning a media campaign in 2019 to help promote addiction service to those who may be unaware that it is available.
"Obviously, we still have a tremendous amount of work to do," said Abernathy. "But the broad distribution of naloxone to community members, family members and addicts, as well as the increased access to medically assisted treatment, are all contributing to the work we’re doing around overdoses."
City officials and public health advocates stress not let a one-year dip in deaths distract from how severe the crisis remains. Philadelphia now has more opioid-related deaths than any other big city. It also has the nation's third-highest rate of fatal overdoses, behind only Pittsburgh and Baltimore. So it's going to take much more than a 9% dip in deaths to rechristen Philadelphia something other than The City of Brotherly Drugs.
Applause for Philadelphia
We at Recovery Boot Camp would like to applaud the City of Philadelphia for taking such an aggressive and proactive approach to the opioid crisis. The widespread implementation of Narcan is especially heartening. So is the city's enhanced focus on addiction treatment. Because while Narcan can save lives, only addiction treatment can keep people alive for the long haul. And we want each and every addict out there to have the chance to stick around for a good, long while.