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Experts: COVID-19 slows progress in Long Island opioid crisis

Health professionals join Newsday for a conversation on spotting, preventing and treating addiction at a time when COVID-19 has made the problem more intense and the solutions more difficult.

Long Island, which appeared to be turning the corner on the opioid crisis, has seen progress largely evaporate from a confluence of anxiety, depression and financial stressors linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, treatment experts said Thursday.

Since the pandemic began, area hospitals, along with inpatient- and outpatient-treatment programs, have seen dramatic increases in patients in distress from drugs and alcohol, medical leaders said during a Newsday webinar moderated by columnist and editorial writer Lane Filler.

Dr. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Catholic Health Services in Rockville Centre, said overdoses at his six hospitals are up 27% compared to 2019.

And the actual numbers are likely even higher, O’Shaughnessy said, as individuals continue to avoid hospitals for fear of contracting the virus.

"You can't keep kicking the can down the road. You need to seek help," he said. "There's still a fear of patients going to hospitals. I'll see urgent cares with lines down the block but yet I'll pull into one of our emergency rooms and its empty."

Dr. Harshal Kirane, medical director of Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research in Calverton, which opened in May, said isolation spurred by COVID-19 is the natural nemesis to recovery from addiction.

Alcohol Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings were canceled or moved into online settings, limiting vital in-person options for substance abuse addicts.

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"We've anticipated that individuals that were already struggling with substance abuse disorder were going to be vulnerable as those issues intensify," Kirane said. "And individuals that were perhaps using or misusing in more problematic ways would be more vulnerable to developing much more complex substance abuse issues as the pandemic unfolds."

Long Island saw a combined 617 opioid-related deaths in 2017 — the most in the state — largely driven by the introduction of inexpensive but highly potent drugs such as fentanyl, according to data from area medical examiners.

But opioid-related deaths in Suffolk dropped 26% last year to 283, down from 380 in 2018, according to the county’s Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel. Nassau officials have said 147 people died of overdoses in 2018, a 20% dip from the 184 fatal overdoses in 2017, according the county’s most recent data.

But data released in late-August by the Nassau and Suffolk police departments showed at least a 40% year-to-date increase in fatal overdoses in each county.

Jeffrey L. Reynolds, president and chief executive of the Mineola-based Family and Children's Association, which provides outpatient drug and alcohol treatment, said Long Island is "right back to where we were" during the height of the epidemic.

"Things like depression and overdoses are just as fatal as COVID," Reynolds said. "Social isolation has a downside. The upside is you protect yourself from COVID-19 but the downside is it effects your mental health in significant ways. And for folks that have struggled with these issues in the past … this can be just as fatal."

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