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East End News Project: Despite fewer deaths, opioid epidemic rages

Across Suffolk County, 396 opioid-related deaths occurred in 2017 — more than one per day for the year. This year, as of Oct. 1, there have been 171 confirmed opioid deaths countywide.

While Suffolk County does not break down opioid deaths — or the uses of Narcan, the drug that can save the life of someone who is overdosing — by towns or hamlets, there are signs on eastern Long Island that the death rate in this epidemic is at least slowing. People are still dying — from heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone — and families are still burying loved ones. If there is a bright spot in this ongoing horror, it is that there are fewer deaths.

In Southold Town last year, according to police records, there were 12 non-fatal opioid overdoses and no deaths. To date this year, there have been 20 non-fatal overdoses in the town and one opioid-related death. Riverhead statistics were not immediately available.

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said that, as a matter of policy, his department sends a detective to investigate each overdose — a practice also followed in Southampton Town, where opioid-related overdose deaths have dropped sharply.

“Our department sends a detective to investigate the circumstances surrounding each of these overdoses, and our one death of a 20-year-old female to an overdose is still very much an active case,” Chief Flatley said in an email. 

“As much as it is important for the public to know that they will not be arrested if they report an overdose to a police department in an effort to help the victim,” the chief wrote, “it is equally important for our detectives to gather as much evidence and intelligence from these overdose scenes to attempt to prevent subsequent overdoses attributed to the same source. It is very traumatic for our officers to respond to an overdose and administer Narcan, but it does enable our department to take the first steps in treating the disease of opioid abuse by saving a life and referring victims to drug counseling and treatment.”

First responders in Southold have administered Narcan to people who have overdosed in their homes, cars and a variety of other places, including a public park. Some first responders have administered Narcan multiple times to the same person. Each time that person’s life was saved, only to repeat the cycle at a later date, in a twist on the old adage that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Town police had two Narcan saves in 2017; there have been seven so far this year, a number that does not include times when the drug is administered by family members or ambulance crews, if they arrive before police, Chief Flatley said.

Across Suffolk County, a record 744 Narcan reversals, as they are called, took place in 2017. As of Oct. 1 of this year, there have been 388, according to county records. County records on Narcan usage go back to 2010, when 279 doses were administered.

Southampton Town has taken strong steps in meeting the epidemic, including forming a task force to study the issue and develop solutions. So far, the opioid epidemic has taken significantly fewer lives on the South Fork this year than last — a statistic that may be a direct result, at least in part, of the community mobilizing to combat the crisis. 

In the Town of Southampton, according to Police Chief Steven Skrynecki, the number of opioid-related deaths dropped from 19 in 2017 to just six this year, as of Nov. 8. By that date last year, in comparison, the town had already recorded 17 deaths. 

One of this year’s six overdose deaths took place Nov. 6 in a Riverside hotel room, according to Chief Skrynecki. 

Last year’s total number was “almost four times the number from the year before,” according to a Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force press release from June. 

The Town of East Hampton had three opioid-related deaths this year, as of Nov. 8, matching the number from last year, according to the East Hampton Town Police Department. 

Despite the hopeful trend, opioid addiction is still a major problem on the East End, one that affects countless families. 

“It’s consistent and it’s rampant. To call it an epidemic is mild. It’s a crisis,” said Diane Newman, director of admissions at The Dunes East Hampton rehabilitation center. 

Various local organizations have responded to the epidemic in an effort to bring the community together to find ways to help those in need and prevent further tragedies. 

Some organizations, including Southampton’s task force, HUGS Inc. and SAFE in Sag Harbor, have helped to inspire those affected to speak out against opioid addiction — a topic people tended to keep quiet about in the past — and encourage people suffering from addiction to seek help, in addition to offering other drug and alcohol prevention outreach programs. 

Southampton’s Opioid Addiction Task Force was formed in October 2017 to help bring the crisis to light. It disbanded in July, having completed its work by presenting a draft report to the Town Board. 

Although Southold does not have a similar task force, it has held public forums to which people came in big numbers to share stories of addiction and loss, and offer suggestions on what could be done. Southold has also held youth forums and a medical forum to hear from specific groups in the community. 

In the last year, Southampton Town police strengthened their efforts to dig deeper into the causes of overdoses and the sources of the drugs, possibly providing at least one reason for the lower death rate there. 

Chief Skrynecki said his department, like Southold’s, now sends detectives to the scene of every overdose instead of uniformed police officers, as they did in the past, to interview family members and survivors for information on the dealer. 

Southampton Police Capt. Larry Schurek also noted that officers have been carrying Narcan for two to three years now, and while it has saved numerous lives, more needs to be done to combat addiction before it gets to the point of an overdose. 

“Narcan was saving a lot, but we were getting repeat overdoses,” Capt. Schurek said. “People are addicted to the drug, and a lot of the time that outweighs the [fear of] death.” 

Narcan education and training have been receiving more attention within the community because of its effectiveness in saving lives. Sag Harbor’s coalition SAFE, which stands for Substance Abuse Free Environment, hosted its fourth Narcan training and prescription drug disposal event at Pierson High School last Thursday. About 20 people attended, and each received a Narcan kit to take home. 

Similar training sessions have been held in Southold and Riverhead.

Ken Rothwell, director of four funeral homes serving the community from Wading River to Southampton, said he’s noticed a drop in the rate of overdose deaths. 

“As of one year ago, we were at our highest level of handling fatalities,” he said. “We were doing approximately two funerals a month, so 24 deaths a year, strictly due to overdoses.” 

That equates to about 17 percent of the total number of funerals his four facilities conducted last year. 

Mr. Rothwell added that those deaths involved people representing every generation and socioeconomic background. “We’re burying kids, we’re burying adults, and we’re burying seniors,” he said.

Photo caption: On Saturday, May 12th, 2018, a gathering and candlelight vigil was held at Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays, New York for those who have lost someone from or who are affected by opioid addiction. 


Additional reporting

As part of the East End News Project, reporting on opioids was contributed by Stony Brook University interns Dorothy Mai, Elizabeth Pulver, Michael Adams, Cosete Nunez and Margaret Osborne. 

 This article is a part of The East End News Project. Three East End news organizations — the Times Review Media Group
newspapers, the Press News Group and The Sag Harbor Express — have joined together with Stony Brook University’s journalism program in a unique collaboration that focuses on the opioid epidemic across the region. If you can help by telling your story, please contact us at [email protected].