PUTNAM COUNTY, N.Y. - With the coronavirus dominating newspaper headlines and cable TV news cycles over the past six months, the opioid epidemic that’s gripped the nation for more than three years has been pushed to the back burner.
Sadly, the data shows that the opioid crisis has intensified nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Putnam County and the town of Carmel seemed to have bucked that trend so far.
After March 19, the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program at the University of Baltimore shows, 61.84 percent of the counties participating in that program experienced an increase in overdoses. There was a 17.59 percent increase in suspected overdoses when comparing the weeks prior to the start of state-mandated stay-at-home orders.
Additionally, the data shows that detected overdose clusters shifted from the traditional centralized, urban locations to adjacent and surrounding suburban and rural areas.
Those overdoses, however, do not necessarily reflect the number of overdose deaths. The New York Times reported in July that drug deaths have risen an average of 13 percent over last year, based on mortality data from local and state governments. If this trend continues for the rest of the year, the Times reported, it will be the sharpest increase in annual drug deaths since 2016, when a class of synthetic opioids known as fentanyl first made inroads into the country’s illicit drug supply.
But here in Putnam County, while the requests for additional addiction treatment and related resources have increased, the number of overdoses has decreased when compared to the same period last year.
Lt. John Dearman of the Carmel Police Department said his department has responded to eight drug-overdose calls since March, while the town saw a total of 19 all of last year.
Putnam County Sheriff Robert Langley reported that his department saw no fatal overdoses in April and May of 2020 but had five in the same period last year. There were 17 fatal overdoses countywide last year. With eight so far this year—an average of slightly less than one a month—that’s a downturn from 2019.
When told that local rehab and support agencies are reporting an uptick in the number of people seeking treatment during the pandemic, the sheriff said that could explain why Putnam and northern Westchester have experienced fewer overdoses than last year.
“If [they say] there’s been an increase in people seeking help, that’s a good thing. That’s a positive,” Langley said.
The sheriff said there could be myriad factors why Putnam’s pandemic-period overdoses are lower than the rest of the country.
“I don’t know if we are better at it than anyone else,” he said. “It could be just the population size and that we have more resources that are convenient to access than larger counties. Whatever it is, I will take it. When it all started back in 2017, it was bad. We are coming down the scale with fatal overdoses now, though nonfatal overdoses have gone up, probably because Narcan (a drug used to prevent fatal ODs) is more readily available.”
Doreen Lockwood of the Lexington Center for Recovery in Mount Kisco and Friends of Recovery Putnam, along with Susan Salomone, co-founder of Drug Crisis in Our Backyard, said more people seeking help have contacted them over the past six months than ever before. They said the pandemic and the quarantine it wrought provided the perfect storm for new addictions as well as for relapsing old addictions. With the fear of the virus, loss of jobs and incomes and isolation, people are understandably anxious, which can lead to substance abuse.
“On Thursday afternoon I received four calls in a two-hour period,” Lockwood said. “We are constantly working to get them into treatment and our inpatient capacity was affected earlier in the pandemic but is opening back up now. But to have four phone calls in two hours is concerning. There is a rise in that—more parents are calling to get information.”
“We are seeing more families coming forward’” Salomone concurred. “They are showing up at our support groups or making calls or going to our website or Facebook—the Family Support Navigator Program at Cove Care Center, which we are part of. We count on them coming to us through social media, which is not easy.”
Salomone said she is seeing families with grown children in their 50s coming forward. And it’s not just opioids. The pandemic has resulted in crossover addictions.
“There is a fair number of adults who are dealing with adults, and much of that is alcohol-related,” Salomone said. “The liquor stores are open. They’re considered an essential business.”
Lockwood agreed, noting that many overdoses are the result of “mixed intoxication.”
“It could be opiates or cocaine or it could be stimulants,” she said. “Alcohol and other drugs are all part of this epidemic. When we focus on just one, we don’t look at the rise of other substances. It complicates the issue. It adds another layer. We do need to continue to talk about these issues.”
Salomone said fentanyl is being found in tox screens in a lot of the overdoses, not just heroin. Fentanyl, a dangerously potent morphine-like substance, is a cheap product used to cut heroin and other granular drugs.
“The supply chain has been disrupted by the pandemic, so they use fentanyl to keep their profits up,” she said.
Salomone said the navigator program, which was in the 30-participants-a-month range before the pandemic, is now up to 50 a month.
“There was big increase since April,” she said. “People are at home and not working and seeing that their loved ones are using drugs. It’s becoming very visual to people. We have more people reaching out to us since we started this program than we had prior to the pandemic. They are seeing it; it’s right there in their face.”
These days the support groups are done via Zoom, and while doing sessions in-person is more effective, Salomone said, the internet’s reach allows for expanded participation.
“We have had a steady support group in Mahopac, but now we are getting them from outside the area because they can take part and don’t have to drive here,” she said. “We will do a hybrid model with both online and in-person even after the pandemic is over.”
Lockwood said this is the perfect time to analyze the impact the pandemic has had on the drug epidemic because September is National Recovery Month.
‘’Right now, there are 23 million in recovery in America,” she said. “We know these programs work.”