Suffolk County agencies will meet quarterly beginning next year to share up-to-date information about the opioid crisis, including "deep dives" into fatal overdoses to evaluate the government's response and find potential service holes, agency officials said Thursday.
The Suffolk Sharing Opioid Analysis & Research, known as SOAR, is a first-of-its-kind intelligence sharing program on Long Island to address the opioid epidemic, which claimed the lives of nearly 400 county residents last year.
The group will include representatives from eight Suffolk agencies or offices, including the county executive, the police department's patrol and detective divisions, district attorney, sheriff, health services, probation, social services and medical examiner. The initiative will be led by Suffolk First Deputy Police Commissioner James Skopek.
"We will be removing silos so that we can share information, evaluate the situation and identify solutions," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said at a news conference in Yaphank. "This initiative will continue our efforts to reduce the deaths related to opioid addiction."
SOAR is modeled after the NYPD’s RxStat, a partnership of 35 city, state and federal agencies that have met quarterly since 2016 to review recent fatal overdose cases. City agencies use the information to reevaluate existing policies, improve information-sharing practices and develop new strategies to combat the epidemic.
"The goal is to prevent overdoses," said Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart. "While reviewing the data we will look to develop and implement changes in our respective agencies. While we often look to help the individual suffering from addiction, this team approach will allow participating agencies to review internal responses to see if there are gaps or areas where we can improve."
While county officials said they often share information about the opioid crisis informally, the new group will standardize that process. During each meeting, the SOAR team will delve into three fatal overdose cases and take a "360-degree view" of each one, Hart said.
Each case study will look at the individual's demographics, employment history, previous interaction with police and probation, criminal record, evidence gathered at the scene of the death, the location of the overdose, toxicology reports, social services rendered, death certificate notes and details provided by the family, Hart said.
Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini said delving deep into each fatal overdose case will ultimately save lives.
"Something went wrong in those cases," Sini said. "Someone is dead. And so looking at those cases and identifying — whether it is a gap in service or a missed opportunity by law enforcement to intervene and get that person into treatment — will help us formulate even more effective strategies in addressing this crisis."
Dr. Michael Caplan, Suffolk's chief medical examiner, said his office regularly shares information with county health officials about new opioid and fentanyl strains. Each month, Caplan said, his office also releases a complete list of drugs identified in fatal overdose cases.
"So we have a good start on this already," Caplan said. "And the case base approach will allow us to more specifically target what parts of the system are breaking down and where could we make specific improvements."
For the first time in years, fatal opioid overdoses in both Suffolk and Nassau decreased in 2018 after alarming spikes at the height of an epidemic.
In Suffolk, fatal overdoses decreased — for the first time since 2012 to 2013 — between 2017 and 2018, from 436 to 385, Hart said. Through the first nine months of 2019, there have been 235 fatal overdoses, Hart said.
"Addiction is truly a health and safety issue," Hart said. "And bringing together high level officials that are experts in their field will yield better results in the war on opioids."
The SOAR team could expand in the coming months, officials said, to include additional county or state agencies and representatives from major hospital systems.
In Nassau, officials formed an anti-opioid task force, co-chaired by Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder and Nassau County Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury), that was to issue a report identifying services and resources necessary to overcome the opioid epidemic.