Over the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic claimed lives and sent thousands to hospitals and into ICUs, another epidemic was also raging.
While experts say the opioid addiction crisis has changed in recent years, it has never abated. And during the year of COVID-19, it lay ominously in the background as East End residents — like all Americans — remained focused on the pandemic.
And during this year, it got a lot worse.
“We definitely saw an increase in numbers of people seeking help,” said Dr. Jared Pachter, medical director of Quannacut Outpatient Services, which is affiliated with Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport. “It went way up, no question. What made it worse is that many facilities were not open because of COVID, so people needing treatment had nowhere to go.”
Here at home
Shelter Island hasn’t been spared the devastating effects of narcotics on individuals, families and the community as a whole. As reported in this newspaper in January, during the pandemic year of 2020, the number of overdoses from opiates reported to the Shelter Island Police Department was seven, up by five from the year before.
The lowest number of reported overdoses in the past seven years was in 2016, when there were only two calls for assistance. This year, there has been one reported death on Shelter Island caused by opiates.
Police Chief Jim Read said Tuesday, “Opioid-based narcotics — heroin and fentanyl — and their highly addictive nature, continue to affect our local community with their insidious nature and ability to ultimately destroy those in its path.”
Chief Read noted that his department is “actively monitoring the use of Narcan and the number of overdoses in our community. We are also collaborating with Suffolk County PD, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and the other East End police departments to follow overdose — both fatal and non-fatal — and Narcan use trends. Monitoring trends collectively enables us to better identify areas of concerns and direct our shared investigative and prevention efforts.”
Narcan, used by Shelter Island first responders as an anti-overdose medication administered as a nasal inhaler, is something of a miracle drug, bringing people back from the brink of an opioid-induced oblivion in a matter of seconds.
Shelter Island’s Emergency Medical Services were in the vanguard of using Narcan, becoming part of a pilot program run by New York State six years ago. The effectiveness of inter-nasal Narcan has proved to be “remarkably successful,” said Robert Delagi, who ran the pilot program for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.
The crisis intensified
In July 2019, Quannacut Outpatient Services moved its Riverhead facility into a new and larger building on East Main Street. In the early 2000s, Quannacut was housed in a 5,000-square foot facility on Harrison Avenue in Riverhead. Before that, the outpatient facility for addiction services was a single room with one staff member at what was then Eastern Long Island Hospital.
All that was during a very different incarnation of the opioid crisis. As David Cohen, director of Quannacut Outpatient Services said, as the crisis intensified so did the demand for space for treatment facilities. The now two-year-old center in Riverhead is 14,000 square feet.
In that space are areas for acute detox and rehab, along with outpatient psych and services for outpatient substance abuse. And over the past year, the need for these services has only increased. No area is idle.
Soon after opening, the facility began treating about 300 people on average for addiction issues. Over the past year, as COVID-19 raged, that number spiked to more than 400 — a 33% increase.
In an interview, Mr. Cohen said all 14,000 square feet are needed. “I don’t know how we’d manage if we were in the other space,” he said. “Overdoses trended up during this past year. No question. The 2020 numbers were high, and the 2021 numbers are not fully known yet. Those numbers are just coming in.”
Lack of access to treatment
As COVID-19 cases closed some hospital facilities across the region to other patients, people who needed help with addiction issues had limited places to turn for help. “COVID fear and anxiety was very high,” Mr. Cohen said.
“There were psychiatric needs and substance abuse needs,” he said. “Because of COVID we lost track of some people for a while. As summer came some patients got more comfortable coming outside [and going for help] and everything really picked up. It got even busier in the fall.”
Adding additional menace to the crisis, Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini recently issued an emergency announcement about counterfeit prescription pills like Oxycodone and Adderall that are actually highly toxic fentanyl. Deaths have occurred, and arrests have been made.
“Making these kinds of composite pills is not new,” Mr. Cohen said when asked about the announcement. “We have had people come in for one thing and then test positive for fentanyl.”
Meanwhile, the New York State Legislature voted to legalize recreational marijuana use as a means of raising tax revenue. Asked if legal cannabis use will impact his line of work, Mr. Cohen said, “That is a big question. There are lots of ways to look at it. As a treatment person, I am slanted in a certain way. Any substance, legal or not legal, can have negative impacts. But whether it is legal or not will not affect what we do.”
Under the state proposal, adults 21 and older could legally purchase up to three ounces of marijuana or cultivate their own plants. Legal cannabis would be taxed at 13%. A new state office would oversee cultivation, processing and retail sales as well as sites for what the proposal called “social consumption.”
Citing the rise in overdoses during the pandemic, State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said, “We don’t need to introduce more intoxicants into the picture.”
Dr. Pachter said one of the main factors working against addiction patients during the past year was lack of access to treatment sites. “Group meetings shut down, some inpatient programs shut down. Some people went to hospitals and got COVID while they were there,” he said.
“And you couldn’t show up at the ER during the peak,” he added. “Everyone there was too busy dealing with COVID patients. So the biggest issue this past year was access to treatment being totally wiped out.
“That was also true during the pandemic for procedures such as cardiac catheterization and even cancer treatments,” he said. “There was a lack of treatment for many health issues during the peak.”
As for what the future holds, Dr. Pachter said, “The opioid crisis has been around a very long time. I don’t think we will ever solve it. Hopefully we can get better treatment and better training to help people struggling with addiction.”
Regarding the potential effect of legalized recreational marijuana, he added, “The question to be answered is what happens years from now if its use expands to the younger ages. That’s a big question.”
Chief Read said narcotic use is a community issue that needs residents’ help to overcome. “If anyone has information that could support investigative efforts to fight opioid use and addiction, please call the Police Department,” the chief said. “The town also has a social worker who can help support and direct those who may need help.”
To reach Social Worker Lucille Buergers, call 631-749-0302, ext. 151, or write her at [email protected].
Additional reporting by Ambrose Clancy