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Projected fatal drug overdoses increased on LI during the pandemic, statistics show

Professionals in the substance abuse field have seen

Professionals in the substance abuse field have seen an uptick in need for services during the past year of the pandemic. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Projected fatal overall drug overdoses increased 34% in Nassau and nearly 12% in Suffolk during 2020, which experts said is linked to social isolation, financial anxieties and mental health challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Public health experts, prosecutors and police said the rising number of deaths are a step back in the battle against opioid abuse that has claimed thousands of lives on Long Island in the past decade.

There were 287 fatal overdoses in Nassau last year, according to data provided by County Executive Laura Curran’s office, including 60 suspected overdose deaths that have not yet been formally cleared by the medical examiner’s office. That overall number represents a 34.1% increase over 2019, when the county reported 214 overdose deaths. Nassau officials reported 204 fatal overdoses in 2018 and 234 in 2017.

Suffolk had 390 fatal overdoses in 2020, including 127 suspected overdoses not yet cleared by the county medical examiner. That is an 11.7% rise compared with 349 overdoses in 2019, according to data provided by County Executive Steve Bellone’s office. There were 389 overdoses in 2018 and 437 in 2017.

Overdoses are classified as suspected when victims have drugs in their system, somebody saw them use drugs or they have text messages or emails about buying drugs. In those cases, authorities confirm the suspected overdoses with more sophisticated toxicology reports.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has caused at least an estimated 6,300 deaths in Nassau and Suffolk since March 2020, has fueled a troubling increase in drug and alcohol abuse, experts say.

"People are losing jobs, losing loved ones and mourning the loss of life as we once knew it," said Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "Clients are saying, ‘What do I have to lose? I have lost everything and I want to get high.’"

Officials at THRIVE, which operates recovery and outreach centers in Hauppauge and Westbury, said they saw a sharp rise in calls for help in 2020. Requests for one-on-one counseling doubled between July and December, according to THRIVE Nassau program manager Ryan Kiser. Far more of those seeking help in 2020 cited problems with alcohol compared with previous years.

"Social isolation is a big deal, especially for people who have a disease that automatically in their mind isolates them," said THRIVE peer recovery advocate Alexis Jinks, who coordinates the program that helps guide drug users to treatment.

"Basically, a year of progress was wiped out by the pandemic," Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini said. "Judging by what our society just went through, one would expect it to be even worse. I don’t want to overalarm people but certainly there is a lot to be alarmed about."

The numbers could have been even higher, said Suffolk Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) if not for the widespread distribution of Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses. Anker, acting chairwoman of the Suffolk Legislature’s Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel, said Suffolk officials have spent years distributing Narcan and teaching people how to use it. Those efforts saved lives, she said.

"It could have been worse if the county had not stepped up," Anker said.

The rising drug death toll was caused primarily by the synthetic opioid fentanyl, officials said. The situation was worsened by restrictions placed on treatment programs because of COVID-19. Although many people in recovery were able to access 12-step programs and counseling through Zoom or Skype, many struggled without face-to-face programs, especially those who rely on mass transit to get to therapy, or lack access to computers and the Internet.

"We are right back to where we started," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Family and Children’s Association, a Mineola-based agency that provides drug treatment. "The pandemic provided the perfect storm of joblessness, anxiety, depression, uncertainty and lack of access to treatment."

Defendants who might have been diverted to treatment programs through criminal and drug courts, or received assistance in Long Island jails, were also unable to get help after the justice system shut down, officials said.

"It had such a ripple effect," said Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart. She said the substance abuse and mental health sections of the policing reform plan the county submitted to the state will provide relief to struggling residents. The reform plan includes greater collaboration with mental health providers and drug treatment experts and expanded crisis intervention training for officers.

"That is why, as we reopen in 2021, we have to make sure people get the help they need," Hart added.

Drug education programs offered through schools, sports leagues or social organizations were shut down during the pandemic, said Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, who described the rise in drug fatalities as "disheartening." Young people pushed out of schools and jobs because of COVID-19 used their free time to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

"These are kids that are at home, they are not at school, they are experimenting," Ryder said. "They are going through depression."

THRIVE’s Kiser and Jinks said many people who have been in recovery exhibited an impressive resilience during the past year, using the tools they had acquired in treatment to handle the challenges posed by the pandemic, making seamless transitions from in-person treatment to online assistance via Zoom or Skype.

"Almost overnight, it became the accepted way of connecting with our peers," Kiser said.

But too many others, especially those new to recovery, struggled with relapses, they said.

"A large number of people seeking services in 2019, 2020, were just starting to get a foundation going," Jinks said. "Then the pandemic hit and they didn’t have the opportunity to develop the support system they needed to get through the year."

Treatment experts say the increase in alcohol abuse during the pandemic represents a hidden threat that Long Island communities will be wrestling with for years to come.

"These are the things that don’t show up in the stats," Reynolds said. "Cirrhosis takes a long time to kill you."

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