Will NY open drug injection sites as fentanyl deaths raise alarm?

Spikes in drug overdoses in upstate New York have prompted authorities to alert street dealers selling illicit drugs containing fentanyl and other deadly synthetic opioids across the state.

The public health alerts came after five opioid-related deaths in Oneida County and 14 drug overdoses in 24 hours in central New York in August.

Officials have urged more New Yorkers to carry the opioid overdose drug naloxone, while calling on drug users to use test strips to identify — and eliminate — fentanyl-tainted drugs.

“Fentanyl has made all illicit drugs more dangerous, and non-opioid drugs like crystal meth can also be deadly,” said state health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett.

“I have some naloxone on me, just in case. And I urge everyone to never hesitate to call 911,” she added, referring to the duty of citizens to fight overdoses.

Pharmacies across the state can also make the anti-overdose drug available without a prescription under a new standing order issued last month, Bassett noted.

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Despina Prodromidis, the mother of Olivia Green, cries during a ceremony on May 5, 2021, in remembrance of 10 Yonkers Schools students who died between 2019 and 2021. Olivia Green, 15, a freshman at Riverside High School, died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in April 2021.

Fears of deadlier street drugs and rising desperation deaths are heightened after New York and the rest of the country suffered record overdose deaths last year, as Americans’ life expectancies plummeted. dropped in kind.

Nationally, more than 107,600 people died from drug overdoses in 2021, including more than 6,100 New Yorkers, according to preliminary federal data. Surprisingly, the number of overdose deaths in 2021 increased by almost 15% compared to the first year of the pandemic, which also set a record. And the preliminary data is historically lower than the final tally.

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Additionally, nearly half of New York deaths now involve fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, Bassett noted.

Black and Indigenous people across the country also saw a disproportionate increase in drug overdose death rates in the first year of the pandemic, according to federal data.

Among black people, drug overdose death rates jumped 44% between 2019 and 2020, and Native Americans and Alaska Natives saw a 39% increase. Whites saw an increase of around 22%.

Systemic social and health inequalities are the root causes of growing disparities, the researchers said. And the pandemic has exacerbated these disparities, leading to stressors and economic instability, as well as social isolation forcing many to consume alone.

Amid the crisis, politically charged debates have raged over attempts to curb overdoses in New York City, ranging from efforts to open supervised drug use centers to expanding access to addiction services and medications.

Will New York allow supervised drug injection sites?

Sam Rivera, left, executive director of OnPoint NYC, hugs an employee of the new nonprofit that runs an overdose prevention center in New York's Harlem neighborhood on February 8.

Last year, New York City opened two centers where people inject or use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals. They joined over 100 similar sites previously operating in international cities outside of the United States

In the United States, officials from at least eight other states have offered to open similar sites, also called overdose prevention centers, according to federal records.

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Last month, New York City expanded access at its centers to test strips used to identify fentanyl and other potentially deadly substances in illicit drugs people bring to sites.

New York Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, also announced plans to open additional centers in New York in the future.

“Countless families in our city have been torn apart by opioids, but I am proud that New York City is leading the way in overdose prevention and action to save lives,” he said. , “because a crisis does not wait, and neither can one.”

Meanwhile, advocates held rallies Thursday at several sites across New York to urge Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, to take executive action to allow overdose prevention centers to open outside of New York.

Hochul’s administration has repeatedly said it is evaluating the centers without providing details on a potential timeline for a decision.

Hochul also announced last month that $20 million in federal assistance would help substance abuse service providers in New York City resume programs interrupted by the pandemic and maintain or improve existing services.

“Like far too many New Yorkers, my family has lost a loved one to addiction, and this funding will be essential to help treatment providers continue their crucial work,” she said.

Political Debate Over NYC Overdose Prevention Centers

Members of the New York Assembly debate in the Assembly Hall at the New York State Capitol in Albany, NY

State legislation to allow a limited number of drug use centers to open in counties outside of New York was introduced earlier this year, but has not progressed through the budget process. of State.

Democratic lawmakers pushing the bill, including Sen. Gustavo River, D-Bronx, cited statistics from North America’s first overdose prevention center program in Vancouver, Canada.

Since it opened in 2003, this program has seen about 3.5 million visitors and staff members have responded to about 5,000 overdoses, with no fatalities at the facility, they noted in the legislative display.

New York City centers have responded to more than 390 potential overdoses to prevent injury or death since opening in November 2021, city officials said.

However, many state and federal Republican lawmakers in New York have expressed 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 undermines drug addiction efforts related to medical treatment and behavioral services.

“As with any public health crisis, science, common sense and research are absolutely essential when developing policy,” Barclay said in a statement.

“What we’re seeing here is the start of a dangerous experiment that potentially puts New York City in violation of federal law and, worse, looks more like a surrender in the fight to reduce drug use,” he said. he adds.

For more details on accessing addiction treatment and services, call the state’s toll-free HOPEline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1-877-8-HOPENY (1-877-846 -7369) or by texting HOPENY (Short Code 467369), health officials said.

USA TODAY’s Nada Hassanein contributed to this report.