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Dramatic dip in opioid-related deaths in Suffolk County, report says

Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker looks on as

Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker looks on as Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart speaks at a news conference at the William H. Rogers Legislature building in Hauppauge on Thursday. Credit: James Carbone

Opioid-related deaths have dipped dramatically in Suffolk County over the past year, according to a report that tracks overdoses and deaths due to the drug epidemic and documents the county’s efforts to eliminate the crisis.

The Suffolk County Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel’s 2019 Report released Thursday said opioid deaths last year were projected to number as many as 283 — a 25.5% drop from the 2018 tally of 380.

That reduction comes as the number of overdoses skyrocketed 140%, from 71 to 170, according to the report. The increase in overdoses at the same time as a decrease in deaths shows the effect of the use of Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of overdoses, experts said in the 127-page volume that represents a year of work by the 29-member panel.

“Things are heading in the right direction,” said Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who created the panel that includes experts from the county’s health, education, social service, law enforcement, drug addiction and legal communities. “I think what’s important to know is that the panel was created due to the continued opioid epidemic. Over 40-plus recommendations were made in 2010 and revised in 2016 so, in 2017, I created a permanent panel  . . . It includes professionals that understand what’s needed and to get everyone to contribute is vital in understanding what Suffolk County can do.”

Anker appeared with several panel members Thursday at the Legislature Building in Hauppauge, including Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), Legis. Samuel Gonzalez (D-Brentwood), Legis. Tom Donnelly (D-Deer Park), Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, Suffolk Medical Examiner Michael Caplan, Jeff Reynolds, president and chief executive officer of the Family and Children’s Association; Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence; Mary Silberstein, Division Director of Integrated Counseling & Recovery Services for Central Nassau Guidance; and Richard Rosenthal, director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Stony Brook University Hospital.

The report provides a listing of agencies and programs designed to resolve the opioid and heroin epidemic that officials have said claimed the lives of 3,685 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties from 2010 through 2018. They include counseling programs, drug treatment courts, law enforcement initiatives like Suffolk's Sharing Opioid Analysis & Research, and the role of technology.

Officials purchased a $400,000 device, a mass spectrometer, to help better detect drugs. The machine was purchased with drug forfeiture funds and officials have said it was already proving to be a powerful tool.

“This report highlights the progress made fighting the opioid epidemic but is a reminder that there are still too many people struggling with addiction,” Hart said in a statement.  “The department will continue its multi-prong approach with enforcement efforts including executing search warrants to remove narcotics and weapons off our streets and working with our law enforcement partners . . . Addiction is an issue that touches everyone and beating this epidemic is a top priority of this department.” 

Anker touted the collaborative efforts of the panel’s participants and results she said came about through “cross conversations” among people in different disciplines as they met up to six times over the course of the year.

One example of collaboration is the manner in which the county made wide use of Narcan, the powerful opioid antidote. Suffolk County launched the Opioid Overdose Prevention Program in 2013 and has trained 13,068 nontraditional responders, the report said. Area hospitals, which offer opioid overdose prevention training and Narcan kits, have distributed 1,980 kits since 2016, meaning as many as 15,048 kits have been distributed. 

It’s that kind of coordination, an “interdisciplinary effect” that Anker said helped bring down the deaths.

“The main thing is steering people toward resources,” Anker said. “If we can provide that helping hand, then I think we have done our job.”

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