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President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency on Thursday, freeing up resources to deal with the epidemic.
Last year, more than 64,000 people died from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics. Many of those overdoses were from heroin, prescription painkillers, fentanyl and other opioids.
James Dlutowski, a paramedic for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Emergency Services, has viewed this crisis from the front lines. He says he responds to overdose calls "probably at least daily," and the number has significantly increased over the past few years.
"We see a lot more today than we ever have," he tells Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti. "In October of '14 we had seen like 70 overdoses total. [In 2015] it was up into the 90s, and then [in 2016] it was over 200."
In Pennsylvania, drug overdose deaths increased by almost 40 percent from March 2016 to March 2017, according to CDC data. The most significant increases occurred in Delaware and the District of Columbia, where overdoses rose by 65 percent and 114 percent, respectively.
The president's announcement gives states more leeway to spend federal money in response to the rise in drug overdose deaths. It also broadens the reach of medical services in rural areas.
"I think declaring an emergency is important, but it is not going to make much difference if we don't actually put resources towards this public health crisis," says Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
She tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson she hopes "the administration realizes there is not an easy fix to this. It is complex, and there's many different parts to it."
Dlutowski agrees that solving the issue is complicated. He says his team often sees people overdose more than once in the same day.
"There's like this vicious loop where there's not a lot of vectors to deliver patients to treatment centers directly from the field," he says.
People often refuse transport to the hospital because they are "so focused on getting high again," Dlutowski explains. If they do go to the hospital, people often leave before receiving treatment.
"They get frustrated because of the time it takes to try to get them treatment options," he says. "They'll leave the emergency room against medical advice, and then just be back with the same people, in the same environment, within just a couple of hours and then re-overdose."
The CDC reports that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for people under 50. The young age of those affected is one of the most disheartening aspects of this crisis, Dlutowski says.
"Coming in contact with a 20-year-old who had their whole life ahead of them and now they're dead, and there's nothing you can do, like that is a significant increase than we had seen prior to the epidemic," he says.
Despite increased access to opioid antidotes, such as naloxone or Narcan, Dlutowski says first responders don't administer the drugs for every overdose — most people just need oxygen. He says the government should focus on funding for addiction treatment.
"Spending more money on Narcan and less money on resources for treatment for their actual addiction might be taking us the wrong way," he says. "And I think it's really important to focus on prevention, and then for the people who are already addicted, focus on treatment options to help reverse the addiction."
McCaskill says the opioid crisis reflects how the U.S. health care system treats mental health and addiction as compared to other health crises.
"I think that we have always given mental health issues a short shrift," she says. "We have a Zika virus, and everyone is on full-blown panic attack. But people start dying all over the country from heroin overdose, and we were way too slow to recognize the epic proportions that this had reached because the genesis of this problem, so much of it, is rooted in our medical system, our health care system."
Dlutowski agrees the efforts to mitigate the crisis must focus on getting people the help they need.
"The most important thing is that we can't forget the humanity of it," he says. "The overdoses affect every single person. And even though that person makes really bad choices, they are still people, and it's a medical condition, and they need help."
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