Long Island’s opiate epidemic is showing no signs of easing, with Nassau reporting a record number of fatal heroin overdoses in 2015 and Suffolk tallying more than 100 deaths for the third straight year.
The grim statistics spurred both county police departments Wednesday to announce the formation of a joint “overdose task force” — charged with investigating every heroin overdose on the Island in hopes of tracking the drugs to its source. The squad is believed to be the first of its kind in the region.
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In Suffolk, there were 103 fatal heroin overdoses, a slight improvement over the record 109 in 2014, according to preliminary data. But the 2015 total may grow: There were 126 possible fatal drug overdoses in Suffolk last year for which the cause of death has not yet been determined.
Experts say the death rates would be even higher if not for growing use of a lifesaving drug. Hundreds of addicts last year were revived with naloxone, or Narcan, an opiate antidote that can reverse the effects of an overdose, officials said.
Across the Island, local police, paramedics and non-law enforcement responders — including many addicts and their families — have been trained to administer the antidote. CVS, Walgreens and Duane Reade recently announced plans to make naloxone available without a prescription.
Authorities said Nassau and Suffolk police administered Narcan 959 times last year
“Consider the overdose numbers we’d be looking at if not for [naloxone],” said Steven Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, an addiction treatment and outreach organization based in Mineola. “It’s devastating. And it’s happening all over.”
Fatal overdoses caused by opiates — which include heroin and prescription pain medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone — have risen dramatically across the U.S. in recent years, driven by a surge in painkiller addiction and a flood of cheap heroin from Mexico.
In 2014, opiates were linked to a record 28,647 deaths in the United States, government data show. Since 2000, the number of confirmed fatal opiate overdoses in America has quadrupled.
The actual number of fatalities caused by opiates — both locally and nationally — is thought to be significantly higher than the recorded totals, since autopsies are conducted in a limited number of deaths, officials said.
The origins of the current epidemic can be traced to the 1990s, when opiate painkillers like OxyContin were marketed to the public as everyday treatment for pain. Previously, such high-powered drugs were prescribed only to patients suffering from cancer and other life-threatening ailments.
Data show about 2.1 million people in the United States were thought to be addicted to prescription opiates in 2012, with an additional 467,000 addicted to heroin.
Since then, heroin use has soared, government officials said, driven in part by a sweeping effort by federal and local law enforcement agencies to deter prescription drug abuse.
Those efforts — including more education of pharmacists, establishment of a real-time state database to track prescriptions, and the arrests of dealers and overprescribing pain doctors — have driven up the street price of a single opiate pill to about $20 to $100, depending on strength. By contrast, a dose of heroin typically costs $5 to $10.
“In pretty much every neighborhood I’ve been in [on Long Island], there’s a spot where you can get it, or a dealer who’ll bring it there,” said one recovering heroin addict, who asked not to be identified.
The 27-year-old man said he was resuscitated last year by a family member using Narcan.
“I know I got lucky,” he said.
Federal, state and local government agencies have taken a number of unprecedented steps recently to combat opiate addiction. The Obama Administration this month asked Congress for $1.1 billion to fight the epidemic, and recently began a push to certify more providers of Suboxone, an addiction treatment pill. Like Methadone, studies have shown Suboxone cuts the risk of a fatal overdose by about half.
On Long Island, both county governments have launched a number of law enforcement initiatives, public awareness campaigns, and naloxone training efforts in recent years — programs they say have helped save hundreds of lives.
Beginning Thursday, the joint heroin task force will try to trace the origins of every overdose, fatal or otherwise, in an effort to reduce the death rates, officials said.
Four narcotics detectives from each county, plus two supervisors and one intelligence analyst, will work full time pursuing dealers and traffickers they deem responsible for overdoses, police said. Federal law enforcement agents will also be involved, police said.
“Heroin dealers don’t know the difference between Nassau and Suffolk counties, and they don’t recognize the border,” said Acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter, who came up with the idea for the joint squad with Suffolk Police Commissioner Tim Sini.
Local treatment experts say law enforcement plays a pivotal role in combating the epidemic, but that more must be done on the medical side.
“In too many cases, dazed and dope-sick young people are walking out of emergency rooms within hours of being revived with no linkage to care and at increased risk for a subsequent fatality,” said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association, which runs several treatment centers on Long Island.
“Insurance companies, despite recent changes in state law, continue to deny access to care [for treatment],” Reynolds added. “There aren’t enough residential beds for young people and the lack of community-based mental health services is driving a lot of what we see today.”
Chassman said Long Island is caught “in a perfect storm” for opiate addiction.
“The heroin dealers have upped the quality of their product to compete with the pharmaceutical companies” that sell opiate painkillers, Chassman said. “They’re targeting Long Islanders.”
Authorities said more funds must be allocated to expand addiction treatment. Many opiate users must wait weeks or months to receive slots in treatment programs in Nassau and Suffolk. Associated medical expenses can cost tens of thousands of dollars.