Drug overdose fatalities increased by 68% during the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 5,000 deaths from 2019 to 2021 in New York State, according to N.Y. Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. Credit: New York State Comptroller office

Gains in the fight against fatal drug overdoses in New York State have been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, said State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on Tuesday, calling it a trend going in "the wrong direction."

The number of deaths from opioids including fentanyl jumped by 68% from 2019 to 2021, taking nearly 5,000 lives in the state, according to a report released Tuesday by DiNapoli’s office.

The total number of overdose deaths from all drugs statewide in 2021 — 5,841 — was 1,700 higher than in 2017, the report said. 

“We see a trend going very much in the wrong direction,” DiNapoli said at a news conference at the THRIVE Recovery and Community Outreach Center in Westbury. “These numbers are alarming," said the comptroller, a Democrat running for reelection against Republican challenger Paul Rodriguez.

"These are tragedies that devastate families and impact our communities in countless ways.”

While fatalities and death rates rose across all racial and ethnic groups, the report found, they increased nearly fivefold among Black New Yorkers, quadrupled among Latinos, and tripled among whites.

The report cited various causes for the surge in fatal drug overdoses, including social isolation and stress triggered by the pandemic, and substance abuse fueled by increases in mental illness over the past decade, especially among young adults.

The report noted that drug overdose deaths in the state, after climbing for more than a decade, decreased after the federal government declared a public health emergency in October 2017.

That trend has now been reversed, according to the report.

One expert on substance abuse said she was not surprised by the findings. The surge is being fueled partly by the spread of fentanyl, which is being added into a growing number of illicit narcotics, including cocaine, said Heather Hugelmeyer, program director at Northwell Health’s Garden City Treatment Center.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“We’re seeing fentanyl in the drug supply beyond opioids and the people that you’re seeing overdosing now are people who may not be opioid users but may be using cocaine or other prescription pills that may have been bought not from a pharmacy and are cut with fentanyl and they have no idea,” Hugelmeyer said in a phone interview.

At the news conference, one speaker said she was nearly one of those victims who didn’t make it through a drug overdose.

Samantha Morales told a group of public officials and substance abuse treatment workers that she survived an overdose in her kitchen in January 2020 after paramedics “narcanned” her. Narcan is a nasal spray used in an emergency to treat someone suspected of an opioid overdose.

“If it wasn’t for the paramedics narcanning me three times I would not be here right now,” Morales said.

After that, Morales went into treatment, and has turned her life around, she said. She now works as a program manager at THRIVE East in Westhampton Beach.

“I’m here to show you that we do recover and there are success stories that you do not hear about,” Morales said.

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association, which oversees THRIVE and other programs, noted that more than 700 Long Islanders died of drug overdoses last year.

“As we gather for Thanksgiving within the next month, there’s a lot of families that will have empty chairs around the dinner table — some of them for the first time,” he said.

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