On May 12 in Hampton Bays, as a cold rain fell on a large crowd of the broken-hearted, speaker after speaker told deeply personal stories about how the opioid epidemic that is sweeping America has changed their lives forever.
At a candlelight vigil sponsored by the Southampton Town Opioid Task Force, parents described phone calls informing them that a son or daughter had overdosed and died.
Wives told of husbands dying, and grandparents spoke about attending funerals for their grandchildren.
The stereotypical image of the “junkie” is a gross misrepresentation of what is happening in Suffolk County, on the East End and across the country, where more than 60,000 opioid-related deaths were reported in 2017. That’s more than the total number of deaths from the Vietnam war and well above the number of automobile-related fatalities nationwide in that year.
More than 400 opioid-related deaths occurred in Suffolk last year, exceeding the 2016 total — and with some toxicology reports still outstanding, or inconclusive, that number is probably low. The officially reported death toll is probably under reported.
There are no simple solutions to this crisis. We hear stories almost weekly of a police officer or Emergency Medical Services member discovering someone who has overdosed or being summoned to a house to use Narcan to prevent a death. Some first responders have administered Narcan to the same person multiple times.
Shelter Island, unlike Southampton, has not formed opioid task forces. We wonder whether a town-only committee would do any good at all. Perhaps the five East End towns should form a regional response. This is a regional crisis, after all.
An East End opioid task force could gather data from police departments and first responders to measure the real scope of this epidemic and present its findings to the public. Let people understand how often Narcan is used, let them hear — as we heard May 12 — how addiction has affected and continues to threaten our families.
That might be a first step, however small, in scaling this huge mountain of a crisis — one that seems to get worse every year.
We need to think collaboratively about pooling our resources and talent to address this growing menace, which also endangers first responders who must take care to avoid exposure to the powerful and often deadly drug fentanyl.
Several speakers talked of suing the pharmaceutical companies for the massive infusion of opioids into the marketplace. Perhaps towns, counties and cities should join in that effort with the goal of reclaiming some of the financial costs borne by towns, villages and first responders — and paying for more training and treatment.
At the vigil, Robert Chaloner, CEO of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, said: “I think this is probably one of the most important public health crises we are facing right now. The number of lives that have been touched by the opioid epidemic is staggering …
“I think it’s important that all the major institutions, including the hospital, participate and do everything we can to mobilize our resources to fight this.”