The fight to combat the opioid epidemic in the region has seen significant progress, but local officials caution the war on drugs is far from over.

Now, law enforcement and drug and alcohol specialists agree that the past several years, and numerous changes, have made a difference in the fight against heroin, fentanyl and other opioids.

“The statewide effort from the governor and the Department of Drug and Alcohol programs seem to be having an impact on reducing deaths by 18% statewide in 2018, as reported at the Opioid Summit in State College last week,” said Angela Eckstrom, executive director of Alcohol & Drug Abuse Services Inc. of Cameron, McKean and Elk counties.

Gov. Tom Wolf attended the summit, she explained, and spoke about the “statewide initiatives that have made an impact such as expanded Medicaid, statewide disaster declaration, the implementation of Centers of Excellence, the expansion of prescription drug monitoring, widespread disbursement of Naloxone, warm handoff program expansion, housing grants and drug take-back boxes.”

The drug take-back boxes are constantly in use, said Bradford City Police Chief Chris Lucco. One is located in the lobby of the police station on Kennedy Street.

“It’s amazing how much stuff comes in here,” he said. “I’d say it’s common to have two to five people a day coming in here dropping stuff off.”

District Attorney Stephanie Vettenburg-Shaffer, who heads up the county drug task force that handles the drop boxes, said almost 1,400 pounds of unused medication has been collected since the boxes were installed late in 2016.

Both Lucco and Shaffer noted a decline in opioid-related arrests and overdoses.

“We have seen a very sharp decline in heroin and butyryl fentanyl,” Lucco said, explaining it is the synthetic form of fentanyl that was being added to heroin and causing deadly overdoses. “We’ve been told it’s nearly impossible to get (butyryl fentanyl) around here anymore, but I’m not saying it’s completely eradicated,” the chief said.

Shaffer said opioids continue to be a community problem.

“Drug crimes go in waves as different drugs come into popularity,” Shaffer said.

“Cocaine and heroin are relatively constant in our area but methamphetamine has been the primary illicit drug in McKean County for the last year — likely due to the ease in which it is made,” she continued. “Efforts have been taken across the nation and locally to address the opioid crisis, including statewide legislation that places limits on prescriptions from emergency rooms; requires medical schools to enact curriculum for non-opioid treatment alternatives; and increases access to Narcan for people who believe they could be in a position to come into contact with someone suffering an overdose — thereby reducing the number of deaths.”

Eckstrom said the state opioid response program has resulted in money for addressing addiction. ADAS has “been able to expand our services to reach more individuals and connect them to treatment by hiring more case coordinators who assist individuals with navigating entry into treatment and coordinating ancillary needs. We have added Certified Recovery Support Specialists to offer vital peer support services.”

She continued, explaining actions taken locally to address the opioid problem.

“We have strengthened our warm handoff process in our local hospitals, educated and dispersed hundreds of doses of free Narcan, housed individuals in need and provided thousands of hours of prevention education,” Eckstrom said.

She was careful to note the fight against the opioid epidemic isn’t over.

“There are many positive enhancements to the system, but I feel we need to be vigilant in fighting the epidemic,” she said. “According to the DEA September News Bulletin, deaths due to prescription opioids were reduced by 2% in 2018 compared to 2017, but deadly fentanyl contributed to 70% of all overdose deaths.”

ADAS operates Maple Manor, an addiction treatment center in Bradford.

“During our 2018-19 fiscal year locally, opioids were the primary substance of choice for the long-term treatment participants,” Eckstrom said. “In short-term during the same time, methamphetamines were the primary drug of choice and opioids were the second, highlighting that opioid use locally this reporting period did not go away, and methamphetamines appear to be resurfacing and can also be deadly.”

From the police perspective, Lucco said many efforts have factored in to the decline in opioids in the area — “The education aspect of it, the public awareness, the concentration of law enforcement on the problem, the cooperation of the pharmacists, the schools… it was a multi-faceted effort.

“I would like to think we’ve prevented some people from becoming addicts,” he said.

Shaffer said presentations have been held for members of the public and for schools to educate local residents about the dangers of drugs.

“In 2016, the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford hosted a public hearing for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania on the issue of Confronting the Heroin/Opioid Epidemic in Pennsylvania chaired by Senator Gene Yaw,” Shaffer explained. “The presenters included district attorneys, police, lawmakers, and treatment providers.

“The public hearing was timely as it was held in the middle of the time period that I would say was the most lethal in our county as we saw several opioid overdoses beginning in the fall of 2015,” she said, “and I believe these hearings were likely a precipitating force in the legislation that would follow.”

As part of the goals of safety and education, Shaffer said she feels strongly that people should know what illegal drugs look like and how they are commonly packaged.

“Many of us would not normally come into contact with these drugs and would not be able to recognize their packaging if they were in our homes.” she said. “Of course, this is problematic for parents because they must be able to recognize dangers in their children’s bedrooms.

“People are frequently surprised when they see the minimal amount of fentanyl-laced heroin that has been tied to overdoses in McKean County,” Shaffer added.

Her goal of continuing to educate the public will carry forward into the future as well. She said early next year, she will be partnering with a member of the state attorney general’s office “to provide an informational session to health-care professionals related to opioids.”

Eckstrom described some of what the future holds in the field of recovery, too.

“The governor mentioned that moving forward the focus from the state will be prevention, rescue and treatment,” Eckstrom said. “We will continue to increase our prevention services in the coming year in our communities and all of our local school districts. We will continue to disperse free Narcan to anyone that wants it and will continue to expand evidenced-based treatment services in our inpatient and outpatient settings locally and ensure that medication assisted treatment is available to all in need.”

Some changes are in store at Maple Manor, too.

“ADAS is currently expanding its inpatient facility to include a recovery center that will be available to our recovering friends, family and alumni,” Eckstrom said. “The facility will offer a fitness center and will be a gathering place where families and loved ones can obtain resources available for treatment, participate in a variety of recovery related groups and activities as well as become educated about addiction and recovery with structured classes offered by our Prevention Department.

“Our goal is to provide education, support and hope for all individuals affected by addiction while helping to reduce the stigma associated with addiction.”