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LI heroin, painkiller deaths decline; antidote use credited

Heroin is shown at SCPD Headquarters in Yaphank

Heroin is shown at SCPD Headquarters in Yaphank on Sept. 19, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

Fatal heroin and painkiller overdoses fell on Long Island last year, county records show, offering a glimmer of hope to besieged addiction treatment organizations and police departments battling an opioid epidemic, officials said.

Some local addiction experts expressed skepticism over the decrease, saying it did not reflect the rise in heroin abuse and opioid-related deaths they'd seen through their work at treatment facilities in 2014. Others in the field said they were surprised the numbers weren't lower, given the widespread use of the lifesaving intranasal overdose antidote Narcan.

Fatal heroin overdoses recorded on Long Island fell from 145 in 2013 to 137 last year, according to data recorded by both county medical examiners. Overall fatal opioid overdoses -- which included deaths from heroin and pain pills such as Vicodin and Percocet -- also fell, from 375 in 2013 to 341 in 2014, those records show. In Nassau, there were 51 fatal heroin overdoses recorded in 2014 -- up from 44 in 2013 and the county's highest total in at least 10 years, records show. Suffolk County recorded 86 fatal heroin overdoses in 2014, down from 101 the prior year, county records show.

However, Suffolk officials say the 2014 numbers have not yet been finalized, meaning their overdose totals could increase.

"These numbers are definitely good news, but this is a very precarious and multifaceted problem," said Steven Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, an addiction treatment and outreach organization based in Mineola. "Unfortunately, this [the lower overdose total] is not reflective of what we're seeing in our day-to-day operations."


Stigma may affect data

Because social stigma still surrounds use of heroin, many families are hesitant to acknowledge its role in their loved ones' deaths, or to permit autopsies that might detect it, treatment experts said. That means the number of fatal overdoses could be higher than reported. "We don't want to quell optimism, but the stigma has an impact," Chassman said.

Addiction experts and government officials involved in treatment programs said they tend to focus more on Islandwide overdose totals, rather than county numbers, because a user can purchase heroin in Nassau and die from it in Suffolk, or vice versa.

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Mineola-based Family and Children's Association, said he'd expected the 2014 fatal overdose numbers to be even lower due to wider use of Narcan, which reverses the effects of opioid overdose.

"I am happy to see the numbers are finally moving in the right direction after years of significant increases," said Reynolds, whose organization runs several treatment centers on Long Island. He stressed that increased Narcan availability was probably the primary driver behind the decrease in fatalities, as opposed to better access to treatment or an overall decrease in opioid addicts.

"This should reinforce that we still have a ways to go," said Reynolds. "We haven't yet turned a corner."

There continues to be a shortage of slots for patients in detoxification programs throughout Nassau and Suffolk, experts said, and overall addiction-related care has not kept pace with surging heroin use in recent years.

Those shortfalls were highlighted by the deaths of several heroin addicts initially saved by Narcan in 2014, who succumbed to fatal overdoses in the weeks that followed, Reynolds said.

Since Jan. 1, 2014, 258 overdosing opioid users in Nassau have been saved by Narcan, county officials said. In Suffolk, Narcan rescues increased from 475 in 2013 to 493 in 2014, county officials said. Thousands of police, paramedics and non-law enforcement responders have been trained to use the antidote, with more training classes being scheduled each month.


Treatment to help addicts

In an effort to cut even deeper into official overdose totals, authorities in both counties have announced new funding and initiatives aimed at helping addicts.

Last month, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano announced a trial treatment program in which opioid addicts receive monthly injections of the anti-addiction medication Vivitrol -- which blocks the euphoric effects of opioids and is not itself addictive -- in conjunction with addiction counseling.

"It offers the brain time to heal and has the potential to save lives while decreasing recidivism and incarceration," Mangano said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced a similar program in January, encouraging the use of Vivitrol at drug court, through the probation department, at the county's jails, and at nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment centers.

The dip in official Islandwide overdose numbers offers some vindication for the work done by the Nassau and Suffolk police departments, they said. Besides arresting hundreds of drug dealers, the departments said, officers give treatment referrals to drug users and administer Narcan. Several recovering heroin addicts who lost friends to overdoses in 2014 also expressed optimism about the data.

Seth Joyner, 32, of the Town of Islip, who used Vivitrol to beat his heroin addiction last year but also lost two friends who fatally overdosed, said that increased access to Vivitrol and Narcan might help begin to roll back the Island's opioid epidemic in 2015.

But, he and other ex-addicts cautioned, officials are a long way from being able to declare victory.

"We are making progress as a society in battling this type of addiction, but that progress is happening in baby steps, not giant leaps," Joyner said. "We have to do better if we want to stop seeing hundreds of our friends and neighbors dying every year."

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources. In this story, Newsday could not locate: Seth Joyner. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission. If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.

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