Authorities are projecting as many as 600 people on Long Island died last year from opioid overdoses, part of a national epidemic that caused more than 60,000 fatalities in 2016.
The total number of deaths is expected to be at least 400 for Suffolk, breaking the record set in 2016, law enforcement and medical examiner officials said, pending outstanding toxicology reports. In Nassau, officials project the number of overdose deaths will likely match the 195 in 2016.
Toxicology tests have confirmed opioid overdoses killed 421 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties last year.
Officials for the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office confirmed there were 290 opioid-related fatalities for 2017, with 136 cases still pending more sophisticated toxicology results.
Officials with Nassau County medical examiner’s office confirmed 131 opioid-related deaths as of September. An unknown number of cases are awaiting toxicology reports.
The opioid epidemic is not exclusive to Long Island. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were 63,600 drug overdose deaths in 2016, according to the most recent data. Opioids specifically killed more than 42,000 in 2016, more than any other year on record, the CDC reports.
President Donald Trump talked about the crisis during his first State of the Union address last week.
“Never before has it been like it is now. It is terrible. We have to do something about it,” Trump said. “In 2016 we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses — 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour.”
Leading the way are both the illicit drug heroin and the potent painkiller fentanyl, powerful drugs that have also seen steady increases as the presence of opioids has grown to become a national epidemic. Opioids are a variety of drugs that either dull the senses or relieve pain, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The projected increase in deaths on Long Island, officials say, would be smaller than in previous years. Those numbers suggest programs rolled out in recent years — better coordination between law-enforcement officials and drug counselors as well as overdose antidote rollouts — might be having some impact.
“At this point we still look for a sign of hope and signs of progress,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association, a drug-treatment advocacy group. “Maybe this is our first glimpse.”
New York State has taken its own measures to battle the scourge. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his State of the State address, proposed a surcharge on opioid prescriptions that he said would raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and be used for anti-addiction and treatment programs. He also unveiled plans to sue pharmaceutical companies for allegedly violating rules on the monitoring and reporting of suspicious drug shipments. In August, a program was unveiled that made the lifesaving drug naloxone available at a lower cost or no cost to those with prescription health insurance.
On Long Island, heroin and fentanyl appear to be the leading cause of fatalities. Suffolk so far has 107 deaths in 2017 where heroin was a factor, statistics from the medical examiner’s office show. That number, which is smaller than the total of 144 in 2016, is also expected to climb, officials said. Fentanyl deaths for 2017 have already surpassed the previous year’s total, with 238 fatalities compared to 208 in 2016, records show. And overall number for 2017 is expected to climb.
In Nassau County, fentanyl has already been identified as playing a part in 47 deaths in 2017, records show. Heroin was the second highest tally, with 35 fatalities last year. Both totals could end up surpassing 2016 fentanyl and heroin totals of 67 and 53, respectively.
Despite the increases, Reynolds said the use of naloxone, the lifesaving drug that first responders use to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, has also saved lives.
Joseph Avella, Nassau County’s chief forensic toxicologist, said there is some hope.
“If we’re not seeing double-digit increases, you have to say that’s a positive,” Avella said.
In 2016, Suffolk County had 360 deaths related to opioids and Nassau County tallied 195 — a record high total of 555 for Long Island, officials said.
Addiction experts concede it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of programs and policies implemented to combat the crisis, but they are encouraged to see law-enforcement officials embrace prevention and treatment along with arrests and prosecution.
“You can’t arrest your way out of this situation,” said Mark Epley, the CEO of Seafield Center, a Westhampton Beach treatment facility.
Law enforcement on Long Island has made hundreds of arrests and executed hundreds search warrants in recent years.
Suffolk County police made 472 arrests and executed 275 search warrants in 2017, police said. In Nassau County, police made 766 heroin arrests along with 639 arrests for opioids last year, officials said.
Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder on Thursday rolled out a new computerized mapping system that will allow law enforcement to track opioid overdoses in real time.
The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, or ODMAP, tracks overdoses reported to hospitals, fire and police, Ryder said. Law enforcement would then be able to predict drug trends and identify spikes in crime associated to the uptick, Ryder said. The application can be accessed via mobile device by the county’s first responders — police medics, firefighters, ambulance personnel as well as police narcotics investigators and supervisors — who will input overdose information that will be instantly available to the department’s team of intelligence analysts, Ryder said.
Already this year, Nassau has seen six fatalities and 46 nonfatal heroin or opioid overdoses, Ryder said.
John Venza, whose son, Garrett, 21, died after sniffing fentanyl in 2016, said Long Island officials and addiction advocates have to continue to work together to end the epidemic.
“We are sick and tired of this senseless loss of life,” said Venza, who is the vice president for Outreach, a drug-treatment advocacy group. “These could be anybody’s children.”
David Morrissey of Smithtown lost his son William, 30, two years ago. The Suffolk County medical examiner’s office said he died of “complications of chronic drug use (heroin, cocaine).”
Morrissey said he has channeled his pain into action by joining other parents who keep pressure on lawmakers in Albany and Washington to fund programs to combat the opioid crisis. “We don’t want to see this happen to our neighbors’ kids,” Morrissey said.
OPIOID OVERDOSE NUMBERS
2017: 400 (290 confirmed)
2017: 195 (131 confirmed)
Sources: Suffolk County medical examiner’s office and Nassau County medical examiner’s office