Penn State projects take on the opioid epidemic

The rate of fatal opioid overdoses in Pennsylvania has increased over 470 percent over the past two decades, ranking the state 8th in the U.S. for drug-related overdose deaths in 2014. Two new Penn State projects are aiming to educate the public while utilizing partnerships with law enforcement and community organizations to identify and disrupt networks of opioid distribution.

In the first project, funded by the Independence Blue Cross (IBX) Foundation, principal investigator Glenn Sterner, post-doctoral scholar in the Justice Center for Research at Penn State, will coordinate a team of Penn State researchers and IBX professionals in a new outreach project to give a voice to those affected by the opioid crisis and to raise awareness.

“The project will take place in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, all of which continue to have some of the highest rates of overdose from opiates in the state,” Sterner explained. “Along with this loss in our community, addiction treatment, law enforcement issues, and disruption of family life all accompany those affected by the opioid crisis.”

Sterner and his team will identify a wide variety of individuals who have been affected by the opioid epidemic based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status and residential location. Once identified, these individuals will be interviewed by Sterner, with select interviews video-recorded to produce videos of individual’s stories. 

“The project will depict the more human side of the opioid epidemic and how it affects people of all backgrounds, and the impacts on individuals, family members, friends and communities,” said Sterner. “The goal is to lessen the stigma surrounding the crisis and enable people to talk about it more openly, and to assist those affected in getting the help they desperately need.”

The videos and other information will be hosted on an interactive website that will go live in the spring of 2018. Once complete, the Penn State team and members of IBX will host community presentations that will highlight the project and the stories collected, and discuss the stigma associated with opioid addiction. Additionally, local resources will be provided at these sessions for those seeking treatment. Sterner says they will be partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to expand the project statewide.

In a second, nearly $1-million project funded by the National Institutes of Justice, Sterner and his research team will be partnering with the Pennsylvania State Police and community organizations to identify and disrupt the opioid distribution network in the state and the most common locations of sales in both urban and rural communities.

Efforts will focus on Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Perry and York counties, identified previously as areas where large amounts of drug trafficking occur. “We will analyze the distribution networks of heroin, fentanyl, and illegal prescription opioids separately, based on data from Pennsylvania State Police, to explore differences and similarities between the sources of these substances,” Sterner explained. “We’ll also explore the local distribution centers of heroin and opioids by mapping areas known to be drug use and sale locations and compare these data to arrest and seizure locations to explore opportunities for increased law enforcement attention.”

The project is one of the first to utilize data and distribution networks to develop a data fusion model that integrates multiple data sources into one. “The model will inform jurisdictions how to use multiple data sets, community partnerships and inter-agency collaborations to further disrupt the supply of opiates to communities,” said Sterner.

The project will have an outreach component as well, as Sterner and his team plan to co-host public forums in each of the six target counties, with the state police and local organizations. Attendees will be able to learn about addiction treatment resources as well as those for reporting illegal opiate distribution in their communities.

“The project is really cross disciplinary, pulling together skill sets from many areas, and is the first study to focus on the opioid supply networks, to inform both academically and in government policy making decisions,” Sterner said. “After a successful pilot project, the counties are very excited about the project — they need the help, and we need to develop these partnerships for the future. We would like to see this model replicated across the state and nation.”

Other researchers on the project include Ashton Verdery, assistant professor of sociology and demography, Penn State; Shannon Monnat, former assistant professor of rural sociology, demography and sociology, and current Lerner Chair for Public Health Promotion at Syracuse University; Pete Forster, associate teaching professor and associate dean in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State; Gary Zajac, managing director of the Justice Center for Research, Penn State; and Scott Yabiku, professor of sociology and demography, Penn State.