Drug overdose spikes in upstate New York have authorities raising alarms about street dealers selling illicit drugs laced with fentanyl and other deadly synthetic opioids statewide.
The public health alerts came after five opioid-related deaths in Oneida County and 14 drug overdoses in a 24-hour span in central New York in August.
Officials urged more New Yorkers to carry the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone, while calling on drug users to use test strips to identify −and discard −fentanyl-contaminated drugs.
“Fentanyl has made all street drugs more dangerous and non-opioid drugs like methamphetamines can be fatal, too,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said.
“I carry naloxone, just in case. And I urge everyone never to hesitate to call 911,” she added, referring to citizens duty to curb overdoses.
Pharmacies statewide can also make the overdose-reversal drug available without a prescription under a new standing order issued last month, Bassett noted.
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Fears of increasingly deadly street drugs and deaths of despair rising are heightened after New York and the rest of the country suffered through record-high drug overdose deaths last year, as Americans’ life expectancy dropped in kind.
Nationally, more than 107,600 people died of drug overdoses in 2021, including more than 6,100 New Yorkers, preliminary federal data show. Strikingly, the 2021 overdose death toll spiked nearly 15% from the pandemic’s first year, which also set a record high. And the preliminary data is historically lower than the final tally.
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Further, nearly half of deaths in New York now involve fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, Bassett noted.
Black and Indigenous people across the country also saw a disproportionately higher increase in drug overdose death rates during the pandemic’s first year, federal data show.
Among Black people, drug overdose death rates soared 44% between 2019 and 2020, and American Indian and Alaska Native people saw a 39% increase. White people saw an increase of about 22%.
Systemic social and health inequities are root causes of the widening disparities, researchers said. And the pandemic exacerbated those disparities, bringing on stressors and economic instability, as well as social isolation causing many to use alone.
Amid the crisis, politically charged debates raged over attempts to curb overdoses in New York, spanning from efforts to open supervised drug-use centers to expanding access to addiction services and medications.
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Last year, New York City opened two centers where people inject or use illicit drugs under the supervision of health professionals. They joined more than 100 similar sites previously operating in international cities outside the US
In the US, officials in at least eight other states have proposed similar sites, also called opening overdose prevention centers, federal records show.
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Last month, New York City expanded access at its centers to test strips used to identify fentanyl and other possibly lethal substances in illicit drugs that people bring to use at the sites.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, also announced plans to open additional centers in New York City in the future.
“Countless families in our city have been torn apart by opioids, but I’m proud that New York City is leading the way in overdose prevention and taking action to save lives,” he said, “because a crisis does not wait, and neither can we.”
Meanwhile, advocates held rallies Thursday at several sites across New York to urge Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, to take executive action to allow overdose prevention centers to open outside New York City.
Hochul’s administration has repeatedly said it is evaluating the centers without providing details about a potential timeline for a decision.
Hochul also announced last month that $20 million in federal aid would help addiction service providers in New York to resume programs interrupted by the pandemic and sustain or enhance existing services.
“Like far too many New Yorkers, my family has lost a loved one battling with addiction, and this funding will be integral in helping treatment providers continue their crucial work,” she said.
Political debate over NY overdose prevention centers
State legislation seeking to allow a limited number of drug-use centers to open in counties outside New York City was introduced earlier this year but failed to progress during the state budget process.
Democratic lawmakers pushing the bill, including Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, cited statistics from the first overdose prevention center program in North America in Vancouver, Canada.
Since opening in 2003, that program has had about 3.5 million visitors and staff members have intervened in about 5,000 overdoses, with no deaths at the facility, they noted in the legislative posting.
New York City’s centers have intervened in more than 390 potential overdoses to avert injury or death since opening in November 2021, city officials said.
Many state and federal Republican lawmakers in New York, however, have voiced opposition to the centers, as well as some Democrats and Black community leaders, including high-profile protests led by Al Sharpton.
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, described the centers as a reckless policy that detracts from anti-addiction efforts connected to medical treatment and behavioral services.
“As with any public health crisis, science, common-sense and research are absolutely critical when crafting policy,” Barclay said in a statement.
“What we are seeing here is the start of a dangerous experiment that potentially puts New York in violation of federal law and even worse, seems more like a surrender in the fight to reduce drug use,” he added.
For further details about accessing addiction treatment and services, call the state’s toll-free, 24-hour, 7-day-a-week HOPEline at 1-877-8-HOPENY (1-877-846-7369) or by texting HOPENY (Short code 467369), health officials said.
Nada Hassanein of USA TODAY contributed to this report.