NYC Officials: Death Rates Are High But Plan To Curb Crisis Is Slowly Working

By Kelly Burch 02/21/18

In 2017, the city spent $38 million on the Healing NYC program, which is dedicated to addressing addiction.

Mayor de Blasio
Mayor de Blasio

New York City officials say that their plan to address opioid addiction through the Healing NYC program is slowing the rise of opioid deaths, giving hope that comprehensive efforts can make an impact against opioid addiction despite the fact that death rates remain high in the Big Apple. 

In 2016, the city recorded 1,374 overdose deaths, mostly from opioids. This was a sharp increase from 2015, when there were 937 deaths, despite the city’s efforts to address the crisis by increasing access to naloxone. 
In 2017, preliminary data indicated that overdose rates might not have increased as sharply, according to The New York Times., which reported that many officials feel optimistic about the policies that have been put in place to curb the crisis. 

However, a report by the city shows that last year there was likely a record number of accidental overdoses. In just the first three quarters of 2017, there were 1,068 confirmed accidental over-doses, with more likely to be reported as additional data came in.

Last year the city spent an additional $38 million on the Healing NYC program, which included funding for treatment, access to naloxone, and more law enforcement officials dedicated to addressing addiction. In fact, the NYPD received $15 million to employ 84 detectives to Heroin Overdose Teams. In 2017, the teams investigated 2,260 overdoses. 

“We’re trying to slow down this crisis,” said Robert K. Boyce, chief of detectives.

Those specialty teams investigate after an overdose, noting anything distinguishing about the drugs, and looking in the victim’s phone to try and find the number of the person who provided the drugs. “Usually it’s the last one, or the last couple,” said Boyce. The number is then added to a database of “thousands of numbers.”  

The father of one overdose victim said that the police were respectful while trying to do important work. “The police are trying to find out what’s going on in the neighborhood,” he said. 

In early February, Boyce showed a reporter that seven new overdose investigations had been started that day. “This is one day,” he said. On that day three people died of overdoses, while four others were revived when emergency responders administered naloxone. 

Despite the vast effort being made by heroin overdose teams, critics say that the city is not being transparent about how much of the money for opioid response is being directed toward law enforcement efforts. For example, in a 12-point report from City Hall, the heroin overdose detectives were listed as "Strategy 11." 

“The stuff that they’re putting out there, it’s not anything bad, but it’s incomplete,” said Julia DeWalt, director of community engagement at Boom!Health, a harm reduction non-profit in the Bronx. “Why are we continuing to put most of the money to law enforcement?”

DeWalt pointed out that more controversial measures—like supervised injection sites—have stayed on the back burner. Jeremy Saunders, the executive director of Vocal-NY, a non-profit coalition of community activists, said that politics play into the city’s opioid response. 

“If our city has record-low crime but record-high overdose deaths, can Mayor de Blasio really say that his allocation of funding is smart public policy?” he said. “There is only one logical answer: It is about politics.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.