Mayor De Blasio recently pledged $38 million to combat the dramatically growing problem of opioid addiction. Nearly 1,100 (eleven hundred) New Yorkers died of opioid overdoses in 2016, more than homicides and car crashes combined. The increase in overdoses is largely attributed to Fentanyl — a powerful synthetic painkiller often mixed with heroin. To tackle the problem, lawmakers are embracing methods that were once considered controversial. Katherine Sullivan reports.
SULLIVAN: At St. Ann’s Corner for Harm Reduction in the South Bronx, Tino Fuentes stands is a room lined with shelves of syringes. Fuentes is the co-director of the Syringe Exchange program here. A man walks in, opens a duffel bag, and hands Fuentes boxes of used needles.
SULLIVAN: Fuentes gives the man a box of clean ones in return. He seems to know each participant who walks in, not just by face, but also by their drug habits and preferences. Before the man with the duffel bag leaves, Fuentes hands him a small green packet, containing a test strip for Fentanyl, reminding him to test his next batch of heroin for the dangerously strong additive. Each visitor to the exchange is also trained to use the opioid-blocking drug Naloxone. Back in his office, Fuentes shows me how to use Naloxone.
FUENTES: So what you want to do is, you snap off the cap [SNAP noise]…..it’s a huge needle, don’t stick it in your finger.
SULLIVAN: He unzips a small blue pouch and draws a vile of clear liquid into a syringe.
FUENTES: what I do is I pull the plunger back…..
SULLIVAN: Naloxone is highly effective at reversing fatal overdoses. Fuentes estimates he’s saved 75 lives with it over the years. He says, there can’t be enough of the drug out there.
FUENTES: I believe that everybody should have Naloxone, everybody.
SULLIVAN: And the City agrees. At a press conference last month, Mayor De Blasio announced that the city will distribute 100,000 free Naloxone kits in the next two years to try and stem the wave of overdose deaths.
DE BLASIO: We’re losing loved ones, we’re losing too many people each day. And so we have to do something very different. One the crucial elements of this is the distribution of Naloxone city-wide.
SULLIVAN: In this regard, New York is one of a handful of cities leading the way. Today, you can buy Naloxone at all major pharmacies across the city, and police officers carry doses of the drug with them on patrol. The City’s new plan embraces Naloxone use. But, some say, it can encourage more drug abuse, by making heroin safer. Dr. Adam Bisaga is a psychiatrist at Columbia Medical Center, he says, curing addiction should be the focus.
BISAGA: The only way to actually prevent overdose deaths is actually bring people to treatment.
SULLIVAN: Bisaga says, opioid addiction is a big problem. No matter how much Naloxone is distributed, it won’t do much to stem the tide of overdoses.
BISAGA: Of course we want everybody doing everything, but you know whether it’s effective or not is another story. It probably has very little impact on mortality.
SULLIVAN: Back at St. Ann’s Tino Fuentes couldn’t disagree more. He carries a kit with him wherever he goes–he’s seen it reverse deadly overdoses again and again.
FUENTES: I was doing like 2 reversals a day at one place where I worked. I’ve done reversals in Union Square Park, Washington Square park, Thompson, Central park, on the subway.
SULLIVAN: He says he even used naloxone to save a life this week, when a participant from the exchange overdosed in the center’s bathroom. Despite the dangers, he doesn’t push anyone into detox. Fuentes says, he can’t change people’s minds. When you’re first priority is keeping people alive, you have to meet them where they are. Katherine Sullivan, Columbia Radio News.