GREENPORT–Opioid addiction is everywhere, and it’s time to stop pretending it’s not. This was the consensus at last week’s public meeting for the state Senate Heroin Task Force held at Columbia-Greene Community College.
Spearheaded by state Senators Kathleen Marchione (R-43rd) and co-chairman George Amedore (R-46th), local authorities, medical professionals and addiction treatment providers came together to discuss what was needed to overcome the epidemic in Columbia County.
“Columbia County has advanced many community-based solutions that address all areas of the heroin and opioid crisis. You have been ahead of the curve,” said Senator Marchione in her opening remarks. “Your efforts have saved lives, and are helping to turn the tide. We’re here to listen to you, and to learn from you as to what New York State can do and do better.”
Those present on the panel talked about a variety of topics related to the opioid crisis—problems with the current systems, solutions that have worked thus far and suggestions for what could be improved in the future.
Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett spoke of the incarcerated population in the county, stating, “Well over 80% of my population is addicted to something one way or the other, and a lot of those people who have committed crimes and end up in there are doing it to feed their addiction.”
He added that the epidemic starts with pills—hydrocodone, oxycodone and methadone, to name a few. By the time people’s pain prescriptions run out, they’re hooked, and their only option is to turn to heroin, a much cheaper alternative.
In 2016, more than 42,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid-related overdose, which averages out to about 115 Americans dying each day, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
“This is real. It’s happening in every community, rich and poor, urban and rural. It’s everywhere, and it’s in every kind of community,” said Scott Bowman, chief of operations for the Valatie Rescue Squad. It isn’t simply in poorer communities that dependence on hard drugs is on the rise.
Columbia County EMS Coordinator PJ Keeler was there to comment on how the opioid epidemic was hurting young emergency medical technicians. “They are seeing death and dying at a rate never seen before, and my fear is that it’s taking a toll on their mental health,” Mr. Keeler said.
He also fears that EMTs are coming into contact with fentanyl, a synthetically produced and much more potent opioid that can be extremely deadly. He said that as little as a couple grains of fentanyl can kill an EMT if they’re not wearing personal protective equipment.
To treat a person who has overdosed on an opioid, the drug naloxone, known by its brand name Narcan, is administered to block the effects of opioids. If administered soon enough after an overdose, it can save lives. But Mr. Keeler said that many times, when Narcan is administered, patients tend to become combative, further putting the lives of EMTs in danger. When someone has overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl, Narcan has to be administered multiple times because of the potency of fentanyl.
Donna Coon of Ghent was also on the panel and shared her story of the loss of her son, Jordan Coon, to heroin in 2015. She shared her hopes of having a recovery center here in Columbia County for people with drug addictions.
“It’s my feeling that we need to make sure that every single person who suffers from substance abuse disorder gets as many chances as they need to achieve recovery,” she said.
In addition to the law enforcement and emergency services professionals present on the panel, there were several addiction prevention and recovery specialists who spoke about treatment options in the county.
Carl Quinn, executive director of Columbia Pathways to Recovery, said there is almost no help for someone coming out of the emergency room after an opioid overdose. Outpatients are simply given a list of places they can go to for recovery and rehabilitation services, but there is no follow-up. Mr. Quinn’s suggestion was to put recovery coaches in emergency rooms who are able to reach out to discharged patients and help them on their way to recovery.
There was talk about new treatment services from Keith Stack, executive director of the Addictions Care Center of Albany.
“I believe that successful treatment of opioid addiction requires residential treatment,” he said. “Demand for treatment is growing, and we need to expedite the capital construction process for state-funded treatment programs.”
“I’m in recovery.” he said. “My family knows the terror of addiction, but we also know the beauty of recovery.”
The senators thanked everyone who came to the meeting and assured the participants present that they would continue to work to stem the epidemic.