A top Suffolk police official told county lawmakers that there has been a sharp drop in opioid overdoses over the past 12 months and echoed “cautious optimism” from the county’s medical examiner and addiction service providers that the opioid epidemic that has ravaged Long Island may have turned a corner.
Through May 27, rates of fatal and nonfatal overdoses dropped 38 percent year over year, chief of detectives Jerry Gigante told the Suffolk Health Committee on Thursday.
Before the past 12 months, Suffolk saw about six overdoses a day, one of them fatal. In the past 12 months, the county has averaged about 3.6 overdoses a day, and one death every 36 hours, Gigante said.
If the current rate stays the same this year, there would be 260 opioid deaths in Suffolk County, Gigante said, the same level as in 2015.
The Suffolk Medical Examiner’s office projects — because testing has not been completed yet — that there were 429 opioid deaths in 2017. That number would be the highest ever. In 2010, there were 141 opioid deaths.
Gigante said 2017 drug overdoses peaked in May, June and July, with total overdoses of 223 in May, 307 in June and 216 in July. In August, the number of overdoses fell to 116. Since then, overdoses have ranged between 84 and 128 a month.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2017, Suffolk had 40 overdoses, nine of which were fatal. Those numbers dropped to 13 overdoses and three fatalities over the three-day weekend this year.
Gigante credited major fentanyl drug busts, aided by technology that allows police to quickly identify clusters of overdoses in real time, along with outreach by nonprofit service groups to overdose victims.
“I’m cautiously optimistic we may have turned the corner. We may see the light,” Gigante said after the meeting.
Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan also said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the sharp increases in opioid deaths are over. Caplan noted that community outreach, such as naloxone trainings, would continue. Naloxone is the lifesaving drug that reverses opioid overdoses.
“Just because we have good news here does not mean those efforts stop,” he said.
Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association, in a phone interview, agreed that opioid overdose deaths seemed to be dropping. That matches what colleagues across the country have said.
But he warned that Long Island remained in a crisis.
“God knows we can use some hope. But it feels precarious,” he said.
He said the widespread use and training on how to use naloxone has helped. In addition, groups such as his have expanded outreach to overdose survivors, including peer-to-peer outreach at hospital emergency rooms.
After opioid-related deaths increased 24 percent from 2014 to 2015 and 40 percent from 2015 to 2016, opioid deaths are projected to increase 19 percent in 2017. The county medical examiner has identified 359 opioid-related deaths in 2017, with another 80 drug cases to be tested.
There are 42 total opioid deaths so far in 2018 through May 1, though another 78 drug overdose deaths are pending.
Health committee chairman Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) called the statistics this year “absolutely amazing” but noted “any death is one too many.”