Fatal opioid overdoses in Nassau and Suffolk combined fell nearly 24 percent last year, officials said Tuesday, numbers that suggest more treatment access, beefed-up enforcement and anti-drug programs have put a dent in a Long Island epidemic that has killed thousands since 2010.
Naloxone, the lifesaving drug used to reverse overdoses, has also kept alive many users who may have otherwise died from opioid abuse, officials said.
Nassau officials said Tuesday that 147 people died as the result of overdoses in 2018, a 20.1 percent decline compared to 184 fatal overdoses in 2017.
“There is a glimmer of hope in these numbers,” said Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas.
Suffolk officials reported 308 fatal overdoses last year, a 24.9 percent decrease compared to the county’s 410 fatal ODs in 2017.
The Suffolk figures do not include 121 suspected overdose deaths — 91 last year and 30 in 2017 — that have not been cleared by Medical Examiner Michael Caplan’s office.
The numbers are encouraging but don’t mean much to the Long Island families who lost loved ones to opioid overdoses in 2018, said addiction expert Jeffrey Reynolds, president of the Family and Children’s Association.
“Until the number is zero, we have a lot of work to do,” said Reynolds, whose Mineola-based nonprofit provides counseling and outpatient drug rehabilitation treatment. “But the numbers are moving in the right direction.”
Fewer overdoses on Long Island mirror national trends. The Centers for Disease Control said last month that drug overdoses may be declining for the first time in decades. The CDC said preliminary data showed 69,100 overdose deaths for the 12 month-period ending in November 2018, down from 73,200 deaths in 2017.
Singas said her office made it easier for addicts to get help by providing $585,000 in asset-forfeiture funds from 2015 to Maryhaven’s New Hope Crisis Center in Freeport, which offers on-demand inpatient treatment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Drug users who overdosed in the past were released from emergency rooms to find scant opportunities for treatment. The funds allow drug users to enter treatment at a time when they are most vulnerable, Singas said. More than 2,200 people have received treatment through New Hope.
“We’ve been able to reach people in the emergency room,” said Ashley Walker, New Hope’s director of resident services. “Nassau County has done a really good job of making services available.”
In Suffolk County, police have teamed up with the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to create a program called Preventing Incarceration Via Opportunities for Treatment (PIVOT). The program encourages drug users to seek treatment. Addicts who have survived overdoses or been identified as drug users during encounters with police are referred to LICADD counselors, who steer them to treatment programs.
“We will continue to be proactive in ridding our communities of opioids,” Suffolk Police Commissoner Geraldine Hart said.
The Nassau County Police Department’s “Operation Natalie,” named after Natalie Ciappa, a Massapequa teen who died from a drug overdose more than a decade ago, combined treatment, enforcement and education. Police used mapping technology to identify at-risk communities by linking opioid overdoses and thefts from automobiles, which officials say is the most common crime committed by addicts.
The department then intensified enforcement in those neighborhoods, making scores of arrests. Drug dealers were referred to the district attorney’s office for prosecution, said Nassau Police Commissoner Patrick Ryder, while users were referred to treatment. Town halls, meanwhile, were held to share information with students, parents and others in the community about addiction, prevention and treatment.
The department has also worked with local wrestling, lacrosse and Little League programs to educate youngsters about drugs. In September, Singas’ office will resume the “Not My Child” anti-heroin program in Nassau schools.
“What we are doing is getting the right message out there,” Ryder said. “We’re not waving the victory flag just yet.”
LICADD executive director Steve Chassman said his organization has distributed naloxone — better known as Narcan — to thousands across Long Island. Some of the recipients could have died from overdoses without the lifesaving drug, he said.
“We’ve done a good job of making sure naloxone is out there,” Chassman said.
The agency also provides drug users with fentanyl strips to determine if their heroin was cut with the deadly synthetic opioid. The CDC has said fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin.
While the decline in overdoses is encouraging, officials said, it’s not an excuse to become complacent.
“Nassau County has mobilized at full-scale to meet the long-term treatment and education challenges necessary to eradicate this epidemic,” County Executive Laura Curran said. “We cannot wait this out — for every additional life we can save, there is another family that does not have to bury a loved one.”