Opioid-Related Deaths Skyrocket In New York

By Paul Gaita 01/02/18

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are blamed for the sharp rise.

 Ambulance responding to an emergency medical situation in Manhattan

The synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has driven up nationwide rates of drug overdose deaths in 2017, is also wreaking havoc at the state and local level.

Revised statistics from the New York Health Department show that synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, were involved in nearly 80% of the more than 1,800 opioid-related overdoses that occurred in New York State counties, excluding New York City, in 2016. The drug is so prevalent that first responders have come to assume that they will encounter fentanyl in any overdose case, while support groups are now considering the distribution of test strips to help users detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs.

As the Journal News reported, delays in reporting overdoses caused by, among other reasons, toxicology tests, caused the Health Department to revise initial data that actually showed a decline in opioid-related deaths—from 1,520 in 2015 to 1,238. The reduced number was credited to greater use of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made more available to the general public through a no-cost or lower-cost program in August 2017. 

However, new figures showed increased incidents of fentanyl in opioid-related death statistics, resulting in the revised figure of 1,879 deaths statewide, again excluding New York City. Fentanyl was also an insidious presence in the city, with Health Department statistics reporting that the synthetic opioid contributed to 1,374 drug overdose deaths in 2016—an increase of 437 from 2015 and the sixth consecutive increase in recent years.

In New York counties like Albany, fentanyl appears to have become a regular occurrence for law enforcement and health care advocates. "I hear estimates that eight or nine out of 10 bags of heroin these days are going to have fentanyl in them," said Joseph Filippone, director of the Albany-based syringe exchange program Project Safe Point. The prevalence of the drug has made efforts to combat the toll taken by overdoses through naloxone or other means a challenge for groups like Filippone's. "It's safe to say that what we're doing isn't stopping anything," he said.

To that end, Project Safe Point, which focuses on harm reduction, has begun exploring options for distributing fentanyl test strips along with clean needles and other supplies to those with dependency issues. "What we're understanding is happening is that people who know there's fentanyl in [drugs] are using less or going slower," said Filippone.

The strips, which can detect the presence of six legal forms of fentanyl in other substances, have already been used in clinics and among overdose prevention workers in Canada and the United States, though health professionals and even strip manufacturers have said that it remains unknown if the strips can detect the myriad forms of fentanyl available on the street, and should only be used in conjunction with a medical facility.

"You don't want to put this out on the street where [drug users] think it's negative and therefore, it's okay for them to inject themselves, and then they find there might be something else and they’ve overdosed," said Iqbal Sunderani, CEO of BTNX, a Canadian company that makes the strips.

But in the face of few options on how to fight against fentanyl, the strips provide some kind of answer, even if the data is imperfect. "It's our obligation," said Van Asher, data manager at St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction, a needle exchange program based in the Bronx. "If the strips can detect some analogs of fentanyl, and we can make them available... I think they will have paid for themselves many times over."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.