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Jul 15, 2019 12:33 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Despite County Data, Local Doctor Says Opioid Use Is Still An Epidemic On The East End

Narcan is administered through the nose. VALERIE GORDON
Jul 16, 2019 2:57 PM

The opioid epidemic claimed a total of 308 lives in Suffolk County in 2018, according to data compiled by the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office—a significant decrease from the 410 lives reported lost in 2017.

But the epidemic is far from over, according to Dr. Allen Fein. The Southampton-based Stony Brook Medicine doctor has treated opioid addiction for over a decade, and he said that the numbers don’t reflect the many victims who overdosed but did not call 911 for help.

“Every week, I hear of people having overdoses,” he said. “People are overdosing and getting resuscitated week after week.”

But it’s not the police administering Narcan—a drug that when administered promptly can block the effects of an opioid overdose. Instead, Dr. Fein said heroin users have started to “shoot up” in pairs so that one can administer Narcan to the other if needed.

“What’s done is one person will shoot up the heroin, with the other person standing by with Narcan, and they’ll take turns,” he said. “They will never appear as a statistic.”

Southampton Town Police Lieutenant Susan Ralph confirmed that, to date, two people have died in the town this year due to opioid overdoses, and that police have revived 13 individuals using Narcan. In 2018, the numbers for the full year were 21 Narcan saves and six deaths.

In 2017, police reported 19 fatal overdoses and 16 Narcan saves, according to Lt. Ralph, who attributed the decrease in fatalities to the more prevalent use of the life-saving drug.

The East Hampton Town Police also report a decrease in the number of opioid-related deaths and Narcan saves this year. To date, police have reported one fatal overdose and one Narcan save in the first half of 2019. In all of 2018, there were three deaths and six Narcan saves.

Those numbers could increase by the end of the year. In fact, according to a press release from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, the 24.9-percent decrease in opioid-related deaths in 2018 is not entirely accurate. The Suffolk County medical examiner’s office is still awaiting definitive results for 91 pending overdose cases from 2018 and 30 more from 2017.

“It’s hard to say where the numbers are going to go in the future,” Dr. Fein said. “It’s still very much an epidemic.”

He stressed that the drugs are too easily accessible, pointing to a recent drug bust in which U.S. customs officials found 18 tons of cocaine aboard a container ship. Officials estimated the street value of the drugs to be approximately $1.3 billion.

“They caught one shipment,” he said. “How many others?”

Phillip Cammann, the paramedic supervisor for the Southampton Town Volunteer Ambulance, added that the two town police departments’ numbers do not take into account the number of deaths within the incorporated villages, such as East Hampton Village, Southampton Village and Sag Harbor.

He noted that all emergency responders report to the Suffolk Regional EMS Council, adding that, overall in Southampton Town, he has seen a decrease in the number of overdoses.

“I can’t really say that there’s a pattern—you can go through several weeks and no overdoses at all,” he said. “When there’s a new run of drugs on the market, there tends to be a little bit of a spike.”

Suffolk County officials have found solace in the recent statistics from the medical examiner’s office, attributing the decrease to a number of recent initiatives launched by the county and local law enforcement agencies.

“The decrease is extremely encouraging, as I believe our enforcement and education efforts are saving lives,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in a press release. “We will continue to be proactive in ridding our communities of opioids.”

The Suffolk County Police Department has recently begun to use an advanced internal mapping system to identify areas prone to drug activity, and has been working with the district attorney’s office to increase the number of search warrants for suspected drug locations. The 12-percent increase has led to the seizure of fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and other narcotics, according to the press release.

Since 2013, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services has also conducted 468 independent classes, training more than 12,650 individuals on how to properly identify and reverse a drug overdose.

Additionally, according to the press release, local hospitals have begun to offer opioid overdose prevention and Narcan training.

According to Dr. Fein, not all hospitals are as keen to provide lasting treatment to those suffering from addictions with medication-assisted treatment, or MAT—the combined use of FDA-approved medication with counseling and behavioral therapies.

Dr. Fein said that medications such as Suboxone and Vivitrol, both of which are proven to help reduce the tendencies of addictive behavior, are not offered at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital or the HRHCare Kraus Family Health Center in Southampton.

“There’s a huge fear and prejudice with people with addiction, because the patient and the doctor don’t have full control,” he said. “Most patients are working people—it’s not people standing on street corners. It’s very much our neighbors and relatives. I have every profession coming to see me.”

He concluded that there has, in fact, been a decrease in the number of opioid-related deaths on the East End. However, he said a much more conservative number would level out at about 20 percent, rather than the county’s reported 25 percent.

“I still think they’re losing the fight,” he said.

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