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Drug overdoses increase during pandemic, Nassau officials say

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder on Monday discussed the increase in overdoses in 2020 and what the county is doing to fight opioid abuse. Credit: Charlie Eckert

Nassau saw major upticks in fatal and nonfatal overdoses during the coronavirus pandemic — a step backward for a county that had made significant progress in recent years battling an opioid epidemic that claimed the lives of thousands of Long Islanders, officials said Monday.

Since the start of 2020, fatal overdoses in Nassau have spiked 43% while nonfatal ODs climbed 18% from 306 in 2019 to 360 this year, Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said at a news conference in Mineola marking International Overdose Awareness Day.

"The bad guys don't follow the rules," Ryder said standing before recently seized drugs and weapons. "They don't go home and quarantine. They don't go home and wear masks and use sanitizer. What they do is go out and sell drugs to out kids."

Preliminary data from Suffolk County in May suggested a 40% year-to-date increase in fatal overdoses over the 89 deaths during the same period in 2019. The department could not provide updated figures.

Ryder conceded that officials "lost focus" on the drug crisis during the pandemic as law enforcement addressed one of the worst public health crisis in a generation.

Courts were shuttered and police were unable to perform the in-person interviews and enforcement measures that had proved successful previously, he said. Meanwhile, addicts found themselves alone, in fear for their safety and facing the loss of their jobs or loved ones.

"People were home," said Nassau County Executive Laura Curran. "They were isolated. We saw domestic abuse go up. We saw the despair, the isolation, the financial insecurity, depression, and the mental health issues really began to percolate and blossom. And of course with that comes drug use."

Jeff Reynolds, president and chief executive of Family and Children’s Association, a Mineola organization that provides counseling and outpatient drug treatment, called COVID-19 "a perfect storm" for addicts.

"Addiction doesn't take a break," he said. "It continues to march on."

Fatal opioid overdoses in Suffolk dropped nearly 18% from 380 deaths in 2018 to 313 in 2019, according to the Medical Examiner's Office. Last year’s fatal opioid overdose figures for Nassau were not immediately available. Nassau officials reported 110 fatal opioid overdoses in 2018, down from 184 in 2017.

Earlier this month, Ryder said, Nassau police resumed "Operation Natalie,” a program addressing opioid enforcement, treatment and education named after Natalie Ciappa, a Massapequa teen who died from a drug overdose more than a decade ago.

The program uses mapping technology to identify at-risk communities by linking opioid overdoses and automobile thefts, which police officials contend is the most common crime committed by addicts. The department then intensifies enforcement in those neighborhoods, making scores of arrests of dealers while users are referred for treatment. 

In recent days, the program led to the arrest of a Copiague man who was observed selling drugs in Wantagh. Police, Ryder said, confiscated a 9 millimeter handgun and marijuana.

Authorities, he said, separately arrested two brothers in Wantagh last week, seizing crack, cocaine, heroin and nearly $1,000 in cash.

Nassau police also arrested the supervising pharmacist of a pharmacy in Williston Park, charging him with nearly two dozen felonies for the criminal sale of a controlled substance without a prescription.

And in Roosevelt, police arrested three drug dealers, Ryder said. When police searched the suspect's home, a man leapt out at police from behind a door and yelled "bang" with his fingers pointed like a gun. Officers, he said, made the instantaneous decision not to fire on the unarmed suspect, who was arrested without incident. A loaded 9 millimeter handgun was later recovered in the basement, Ryder said. 

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