Editorial: Lives lost two ways

Opioids_pills-drug abuse

A thousand deaths is a statistic, but a single death is a tragedy.

That old truth has never been more relevant than when applied to the opioid epidemic.

To turn cold numbers into people’s lives is what’s behind the East End News Project, where Eastern Long Island’s weekly newspapers have joined together to bring the stories of individuals who have been lost through overdose deaths in our communities. Lost is the correct word here, since they have been lost twice, by dying, and again by their individual lives being obscured in statistics.

The Times Review Media Group’s three newspapers — the Reporter, The Suffolk Times and the Riverhead News-Review — have teamed up with The Press News Group (The Southampton Press, The East Hampton Press and 27east.com), and The Sag Harbor Express to jointly report on this critical issue.

Charity Robey’s account  — the page one story in our print edition this week and posted online yesterday afternoon — of Kirstin Zabel, who had a solid, life-long connection to the Island and succumbed to the disease of addiction, fills in the human dimension.

The total number of deaths from drug use in Suffolk County for 2017 — not yet finalized —is expected to be more than 400, the highest death rate from opioid overdose of any county in New York, according to data from the state Department of Health. Almost 500 people died from opioid overdoses in Nassau and Suffolk counties in 2016, the most ever.

The drug fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than morphine, was a culprit in many of those deaths, and most likely caused the death of Ms. Zabel.

No place, no community is immune to the epidemic, including the Island. According to the Police Department, there have been 26 overdoses on Shelter Island from 2013 to 2017. Another startling statistic is the amount of unused prescription drugs — 160 pounds — that has been collected by the department this year at the Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy as part of a drop-off program initiated by the pharmacy.

According to Detective Sergeant Jack Thilberg, the program has seen a rise in the volume of drugs collected increasing year-to-year.

The epidemic is here and we have to face the truth, as does the rest of the country. Boasting about something that hasn’t happened doesn’t help, as President Trump declared at a rally in May, “We got $6 billion for opioid and getting rid of that scourge that’s taking over our country … And the numbers are way down. We’re doing a good job with it.”

What he was speaking about, we suppose, is that the number of opioid prescriptions being filled is down, as it has been over the last several years. But deaths from opioid overdoses are continuing to rise.

To truly begin to stop the heartbreak and chaos of addictive drug use, it’s important to educate ourselves, to clearly understand the numbers we’re presented with, and never lose sight that there is a person and a family behind every number.