Even with Deaths Falling, Opioid Epidemic Rages On

Community members attended a candlelight vigil at Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays in May 2018 to remember those lost to the opioid crisis. Michael Heller photo

By Anisah Abdullah

Across Suffolk County in 2017, there were 396 opioid-related deaths — more than one a day for the year. Up to October 1 of this year, there have been 171 opioid deaths county-wide.

While Suffolk County does not break down the number of opioid deaths — or the uses of NARCAN, the drug that can save the life of someone who is overdosing — by towns or hamlets, there are signs on eastern Long Island that the death rate in this epidemic is at least slowing.

People are still dying — from heroin, Fentanyl and Oxycodone; families are still burying loved ones. If there is a bright spot in this ongoing horror, it is that there are fewer deaths.

In Southold Town last year, according to police records, there were 12 non-fatal opioid overdoses and no deaths. To date this year, there have been 20 non-fatal overdoses in the town and one opioid-related death. Riverhead statistics were not immediately available.

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said his department as a matter of policy sends a detective to investigate the circumstances of each overdose — a practice also being done in Southampton Town, where opioid-related overdose deaths have dropped sharply.

“Our department sends a detective to investigate the circumstances surrounding each of these overdoses, and our one death of a 20-year-old female to an overdose is still very much an active case,” Chief Flatley said in an email.

“As much as it is important for the public to know that they will not be arrested if they report an overdose to a police department in an effort to help the victim, it is equally important for our detectives to gather as much evidence and intelligence from these overdose scenes to attempt to prevent subsequent overdoses attributed to the same source. It is very traumatic for our officers to respond to an overdose and administer NARCAN, but it does enable our department to take the first steps in treating the disease of opioid abuse by saving a life and referring victims to drug counseling and treatment.”

In the town, first responders have administered NARCAN to people who have overdosed in their homes, cars and in a variety of places, including a public park. Some first responders have administered NARCAN multiple times — to the very same person. Each time that person’s life was saved, only to repeat the cycle at a later date, in a twist on the old adage that insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.

Town police had two NARCAN saves in 2017; there have been seven so far this year, a number which does not include family members administering the drug, or ambulance crews if they arrive before police, Chief Flatley said.

Suffolk County wide, a record 744 NARCAN reversals, as they are called, were administered in 2017; as October 1 of this year, there have been 388, according to county records. County records on NARCAN usage go back to 2010, when there were 279 doses administered.

Southampton Town has taken strong steps in meeting the epidemic, including forming a task force to study the issue and find solutions. The opioid epidemic so far has taken significantly fewer lives on the South Fork this year than last — a statistic that may be a direct result, at least in part, of the community mobilizing to combat the crisis.

In the Town of Southampton, the number of opioid-related deaths dropped from 19 in 2017 to just six this year, as of November 8, according to Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki. On the same November date last year, in comparison, the town had already recorded 17 deaths.

One of the six overdose deaths this year in Southampton took place on November 6 in a Riverside hotel room, according to Chief Skrynecki.

Last year’s total number was “almost four times the number from the year before,” according to a Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force press release from June.

The Town of East Hampton had three opioid-related deaths this year, as of November 8, matching the number from last year, according to the East Hampton Town Police Department.

Despite the hopeful trend, opioid addiction is still a major problem on the East End, one that affects countless families.

“It’s consistent and it’s rampant. To call it an epidemic is mild. It’s a crisis,” said Diane Newman, director of admissions at The Dunes East Hampton rehabilitation center.

Various local organizations have responded to the epidemic in an effort to bring the community together to find ways to help those in need and prevent further tragedies.

Some organizations, including the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force, HUGS Inc. and SAFE in Sag Harbor, have helped to inspire those affected by opioid addiction to speak out against the issue — a topic that people tended to keep quiet about in the past — and helped people suffering from addiction to seek help, in addition to offering other drug and alcohol prevention outreach programs.

The Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force was formed in October 2017 to help bring the crisis to light. Southold does not have a similar task force. It has held public forums where people came in big numbers to share stories of addiction and loss, and suggestions on what could be done. It also held youth forums and a medical forum to hear from specific groups in the community.

The task force disbanded in July, having completed its work by presenting a draft report to the Town Board.

In the last year, Southampton Town Police strengthened their investigation efforts to dig deeper into the cause of overdoses and the sources of the drugs, possibly providing at least one reason for the lower death rate in the Town of Southampton.

As the Southold Town police department does, Chief Skrynecki said that his department now sends detectives to the scene of every overdose instead of uniformed police officers, as they did in the past, to interview family members and survivors for information on the dealer.

Southampton Police Captain Larry Schurek also noted that officers have been carrying NARCAN for two to three years now, and while it has saved numerous lives, more needs to be done to combat addiction before it gets to the point of an overdose.

“Narcan was saving a lot, but we were getting repeat overdoses,” Capt. Schurek said. “People are addicted to the drug, and a lot of the time that outweighs the [fear of] death.”

NARCAN education and training has been receiving more attention within the community because of its effectiveness in saving lives from overdoses. Sag Harbor’s coalition SAFE, which stands for Substance-Abuse-Free Environment, hosted its fourth NARCAN Training Session and Rx Drug Disposal event at Pierson Middle-High School earlier this month. About 20 community members attended, and they each received a NARCAN kit to take home.

Similar training sessions have been held in Southold and Riverhead.

Ken Rothwell, a funeral director of four funeral homes that serve the community from Wading River to Southampton Town, said that the rate of overdose deaths has dropped at his facilities.

“As of one year ago, we were at our highest level of handling fatalities,” he said. “We were doing approximately two funerals a month, so 24 deaths a year, strictly due to overdoses.”

That comes out to about 17 percent of the total number of funerals his four facilities conducted last year.

He added that those deaths were people representing every generation and socioeconomic background. “We’re burying kids, we’re burying adults, and we’re burying seniors,” he said.