PATERSON, NJ - With more than 75 years of public safety experience among them, Paterson’s public safety leadership triumvirate, including Police Chief Ibrahim “Mike” Baycora and Fire Chief Brian McDermott, have never faced “a more formidable foe” than the opioid epidemic that seems to have its grips so firmly set on Paterson, Public Safety Director Jerry Speziale said Monday.

For Baycora, the issue was highlighted again just last week when a resident came to his office to share her concern for a loved one battling a drug problem. The day after reuniting the family, Baycora reflected, the drug user was gone again. Addiction, he speculated, had left her without the ability to choose.

When opioids call addicts answer,” he lamented, before being followed by McDermott who shared his own story of responding to an EMS call where they found a long time addict who was about to inject himself before deciding he’d “had enough.” 

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“These are the people we need to help,” McDermott said, referring to not just those individuals, or the 200 his EMTs have administered the overdose reversing narcan to in 2020, or even the more than 1,000 overdose victims they’ve responded to, but to all who are struggling with addiction.

McDermott was not shy to admit that in many instances those victims are the same ones “we are going to save over and over,” individuals that some believe should be allowed to die. “These are the people that need our help.”

On Monday all three joined Mayor Andre Sayegh and Representative Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) to announce that the city has been awarded a $900,000, three year, grant to help Paterson expand efforts to identify, treat, and support those impacted by illicit opioids, stimulants, and other drugs.

Specifically, the funds will provide support for: a recovery specialist to perform proactive outreach with residents in “hot spot” areas; an Overdose Fatality Review Team to better analyze and understand overdose cases and trends; and the hiring of staff needed to build the capacity and sustainability of the Paterson Coalition for Opioid Assessment and Response over time.

Comparing the fight against opioids to one waged in the 1980s when AIDS raged through similarly placed communities, Pascrell said that even while efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 are at a critical point “we can’t afford to take an intermission” when it comes helping families beat back addiction. Whether it’s insuring the United States Postal Service and other delivery companies aren't allowing drugs into the country, pushing back against big pharma who have played the role of “profiteers” in pushing opioids, or law enforcement efforts such as one last week that led to the takedown of both a heroin mill and a crack mill, “we must stop the flow on our streets,” he said. 

Also in attendance was Paterson Police Sergeant Todd Pearl who will help administer the grant in an effort to develop “new approaches” in the battle. The multi-disciplinary group, consisting of Paterson Department of Health and Human Services, Saint Joseph’s Health, the Health Coalition of Passaic County, and John Jay College, will, he said, utilize not just data they’ve collected through previous efforts, but also that which has not yet been identified.

Particularly hard hit by the drug trade is Paterson’s Fourth Ward which was represented Monday by Councilwoman Ruby Cotton who thanked those involved in securing the funding and said that “people want help,” it just has to be made more accessible. Meanwhile her colleague, Fifth Ward Councilman Luis Velez, asked that the commitment Paterson is making to fighting drug use be shared by neighboring communities.

“We want to be a friendly and welcoming city,” Velez said.  “But we want you to take care of your residents that are addicted.”

Asked by TAPinto Paterson whether residents should be satisfied with yet another grant announcement Sayegh wasted no time offering a resounding “no.”

“Our streets tell us that these are the problems we need to confront head on, and we are,” Sayegh added, before also listing homelessness and violence as other ills that his Administration has recently secured and directed funding towards. “It’s not just about dollars and cents, it’s also about having the sense to know that we can not win these battles alone, rounding up the resources and building the capacity, and enacting far-reaching strategies that will provide much more than short term solutions."

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