Deaths from accidental opioid overdoses in Southampton Town are down 90 percent so far this year to one compared to 12 by the end of June last year, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said last week as leaders of the town’s Opioid Addiction Task Force gathered at the June 21 town board work session to report their findings and make recommendations after eight months of meetings and public events.
Sitting face to face with town board members as a slide show of bullet-pointed lists appeared on three video screens, task force leaders called for dozens of steps to help prevent opioid abuse in the first place; improve police management of opioid cases; provide immediate treatment for those in crisis and promote long-term support for those in recovery.
The suggestions included continuing improvements in public education; support systems to help people quit; activities for young people to help them avoid drug temptations; better insurance coverage for full treatment and recovery; information sharing and coordination among police agencies; and well-run “sober houses” for those in recovery.
“One death is way too many,” the supervisor said, but he added the dramatic decline in deaths so far this year may be the result “of the community coming together” under the leadership of his task force co-chairman, Drew Scott, the retired News 12 anchorman, and “getting the word out” about the dangers of opioid abuse.
The supervisor called on Mr. Scott, a personal friend from Westhampton, after Mr. Scott’s granddaughter, Hallie Ulrich, 22, a Pierson High School graduate, died from an opioid overdose in October last year. Two days later, her boyfriend also succumbed. Traces of the powerful opioid fentanyl were found in her blood.
“We were all struggling,” Mr. Schneiderman recalled. “What do you do? There were way too many deaths.”
“We need to come together as a community to try to figure out what it is we should be doing,” he remembered thinking. So he asked Mr. Scott “to work with me in co-chairing” a task force on the issue, which started out with 12 members and now has more than 40.
“He said ‘yes’ and I was so happy he was able to work through his grieving” to organize the effort and “dedicate himself to the community and try and make a difference,” the supervisor said.
During the past eight months, the task force has sponsored five often emotional forums, a road trip to a Hauppauge treatment facility and a candlelight vigil on the eve of Mother’s Day at Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays. It featured 19 candles representing the lives lost in 2017 surrounding a central candle for the person who died in 2018, a graduate of Hampton Bays High School.
Organizers divided the task force into four subcommittees focusing on prevention, enforcement, treatment and recovery. Leaders of each took seats at the town board table on at the work session last week to describe their findings and recommendations.
Prevention requires five to 10 years of “consistent effort,” said Kim Laube, executive director of HUGS, Human Understanding and Growth Services, a member of the Prevention Subcommittee. Every dollar spent on prevention saves $10 to $20 in treatment costs, she said, adding that “schools do a great job but the truth is this is a community issue.”
Nancy Lynott, director of the town’s Youth Bureau, called for “increased access to caring adults” for young people, many of whom feel isolated and alone — a feeling that leads to substance abuse. There should be more indoor youth center activities and even a “major arena” to attract star performers someday, she said.
From the Treatment Subcommittee, Karen Martin, acting director of the Alternatives counseling center in Southampton, said addiction is “not about willpower” and that the stigma once associated with addiction and recovery has faded. Better insurance coverage is a must. “We are battling the insurance companies,” she said. They used to pay for 30 days of treatment and “now we’re lucky if it’s eight to 10 days. That’s [just] an extended detox course,” not the needed long-term treatment, she said.
Insurance companies are setting people up to fail, she added, because they won’t cover long-term treatment “until you’ve failed twice” by using drugs during treatment or recovery.
The East End needs sober houses, she said, that are not “a frat house or a party house.” Establishing them here can be challenging because of zoning restrictions and neighborhood concerns, the supervisor noted. Sober houses should not be in an addict’s own neighborhood, which contain the cues that led him or her to use drugs in the first place.
Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki from the Enforcement Subcommittee described his department’s stepped-up efforts to attack the opioid crisis, with better data collection and now an individual detective assigned to every overdose case to seek leads. All officers and detectives now carry a supply of Narcan, the nasal spray used for treating overdose victims.
After discussing one man who was saved three times from overdoses and yet continues to use opioids, the chief spoke of the need for a “bridge” between the police response and giving victims access to resources for help.
“As the police department engages in repetitive saves, it pains us to see that they’re doing this,” still using drugs, “and it keeps happening,” the chef explained. “So several months ago, we came up with the idea of trying to … bridge the gap from first responder to treatment” by putting users in touch with members of the Task Force Treatment Subcommittee. The police now ask users to voluntarily share their personal information with the subcommittee because “studies show if we reach out rather than wait” for another crisis, the results are better, the chief said.
The one person who died this year is the girlfriend of the man who has continued to use drugs after three saves, the chief said.
Mark Eply, the CEO of the Seafield Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment in Westhampton Beach, said full recovery was a five- to 10-year process. He said parents need to understand that “if you’re drinking and doing drugs that’s what your kids are going to do.”
The tone changed after Mr. Scott introduced Manuel Mosquera, chief of the downstate office of New York’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), and Oscar Rivera of the Long Island regional office of OASAS.
“No disrespect intended,” said Mr. Mosquera, but “it seems to me it’s being viewed as a Southampton problem. It’s not.”
He said he’d like to help the community not have to “reinvent the wheel” as it tackles the opioid crisis. He said it is not a town, county or state problem. “It’s much bigger than all of us. It’s a little heartbreaking for me to sit out there and listen to how everybody is struggling to come up with an answer when there are lots of other people trying to come up with the same thing.”
“We’ve had horrible experiences” with sober houses in New York because operators “are milking the system,” he warned.
“When you are dealing with drugs, it’s person centered,” said Mr. Mosquera.“There is no one fix for everybody, which is what makes dealing with the drug epidemic as horrendous as it is. If you have 10 people, you have to find which method works” for each of them. “Multiply that by a thousand, multiply it by a million. You get a sense of what you’re up against.”
Closing the presentation, Supervisor Schneiderman said the question now was “what’s next?”
“The Town Board is going to have to figure out what to do,” such as deciding whether or not to keep the Task Force meeting and “which recommendations are town specific,” he said.
“This is an ongoing effort,” he added. “We’ll have to keep the work going. Just because the numbers are encouraging doesn’t mean we get to rest.”