Fatal opioid overdoses in Suffolk County dropped nearly 18 percent in 2019, the second consecutive annual declines after years of spikes that claimed the lives of thousands of Long Islanders.
The office of Suffolk County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael J. Caplan estimated that 313 people died as a result of opioid overdoses last year, a 17.6% drop from the 380 deaths in 2018 and a more than 28% decline compared to 435 deaths in 2017.
Last year’s fatal opioid overdose figures for Nassau County were not immediately available. Nassau officials reported 110 fatal opioid overdoses in 2018, down from 184 in 2017 and 195 in 2016.
Suffolk health and law-enforcement officials credit the decline of deaths — caused by drugs such as heroin or fentanyl — to aggressive policing and prosecution, as well as prevention, education and treatment programs enacted in recent years to combat the opioid epidemic.
“We believe the reduction we are seeing now is in correlation to the efforts the county has been making with our community partners,” said Cari Faith Besserman, deputy director of the Suffolk Department of Health Services Division of Community Mental Hygiene.
Besserman said that Suffolk’s success has gotten the attention of the federal National Institutes of Health, which included the county in a research study called HEALing Communities intended to reduce opioid overdose deaths by 40% in three years.
“The idea is to share these strategies and tactics with other communities,” Besserman said.
Suffolk officials continue to roll out new responses to the opioid crisis, which has claimed 4,000 lives or more on Long Island since 2010. Earlier this year, officials began placing naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote, in 125 automatic external defibrillators in Suffolk County buildings.
The Department of Health Services also sent letters to 800 organizations with registered AEDs offering to provide them with naloxone, better known as Narcan, and training to use the drugs.
“These new initiatives are intended to provide community members with the tools they need to save lives,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD), called the Suffolk decline “fantastic news” and praised officials for initiating programs that have helped reduce opioid deaths.
“We’re ecstatic that overdose deaths are down but that doesn’t translate to less sick people,” Chassman said.
Jeffrey Reynolds of Family and Children’s Association, a Mineola organization that provides counseling and outpatient drug treatment, also applauded the news but said he worries that the coronavirus pandemic will take attention away from the opioid crisis. He also said he’s seen indications that the use of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine are on the rise.
“We can’t rest on our laurels until the number is zero,” Reynolds said.
One of the biggest factors in the decrease in deaths, officials said, has been expanded access to naloxone. The county has distributed more than 14,000 naloxone kits and conducted more than 530 classes on how to use the drug since 2013, officials said.
Ten hospitals across the county have provided 2,400 naloxone kits since July 2016 to patients who have been treated for overdoses in emergency rooms, officials said.
Officials have also joined forces with Suffolk hospitals to intervene with drug users after they overdose, providing them with information on medically assisted treatment that uses drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine to ease opioid cravings, buying users time to get into treatment. “Two years ago, this wasn’t even part of the conversation,” Besserman said.
The Diagnostic, Assessment and Stabilization Hub (DASH), a 24-hour crisis center in Hauppauge, has also helped people struggling with substance abuse issues get into treatment quickly. The facility has made more than 4,100 referrals to treatment facilities since it opened in March 2019, Besserman said.
“It makes good referrals, not to cash-only doctors or treatment centers that burn through insurance, but good, quality care,” said David Morrissey of Long Island Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods, a community organization that has helped develop strategies to combat opioid abuse.
Suffolk police have also helped steer people who abuse opioids to treatment in recent years through a program known as PIVOT, or Preventing Incarceration Via Opportunities for Treatment. Officers who meet people struggling with opioids pass those individual’s names along to LICADD, which then contacts them to offer treatment opportunities, according to Chief of Department Stuart Cameron.
“The idea is to save lives, not put people in jail,” Cameron said.
THRIVE, also based in Happauge, offers programs aimed at supporting people in recovery, as well as a drug- and alcohol-free place to socialize and attend classes.The Peer-to-Peer Substance Education Programs train high students to mentor younger kids on the dangers of opioids and other drugs, officials said. The county has also trained scores of coaches at Suffolk County schools since last May on how to identify signs that their students are abusing drugs.
Law enforcement also continues to investigate and prosecute large-scale suppliers. Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini and Cameron established a hotline — 631-852-NARC — a few years ago that allows residents to anonymously report drug dealers in their communities. Investigators are increasingly obtaining warrants for searches and wiretaps to build cases against major dealers, and mapping overdoses to determine where they are clustered and how to direct their resources.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, offer people who abuse opioids access to treatment even after they have been arrested, Sini said. The charges against defendants arrested on low-level offenses can be dismissed if they go to treatment before arraignment, he said. Low-level offenders can also be diverted to drug court and avoid incarceration if they complete their treatment programs.
“There is a program at every step,” Sini said.
Fatal opioid overdoses in Suffolk County 2015-2019
Source: Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's Office.