Through November this calendar year, at least 38 people died from a drug overdose reported in Oneida County through its overdose mapping program, which recorded 365 overdoses through the year’s first 11 months.
The number of fatalities along with the total overdoses reported were among statistics reported at Wednesday’s county opioids summit, where officials announced a restructuring of the countywide task force. The aim is to improve the county’s response to opioid addiction and other drug overdoses.
County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. told the summit of people involved in addiction treatment, recovery and prevention that the county is matching a two-year $600,000 federal grant to gather and analyze data on opioid addiction in the county.
Meanwhile, the county is still among the plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit brought by local and state governments across the United States against certain makers of opioid pain medications seeking compensation for costs associated with them, Picente said.
“This is not going away in the next couple of years,” Picente said.
As described Wednesday, no single tactic will be used. Instead, the task force will work on awareness and education, prevention particularly among youth, reduced proscribing of legal opioids and similar drugs by medical practitioners, and improved access to medication-assisted treatment.
Dr. Avinash Kambhampati, assistant director of the emergency department at the Mohawk Valley Health System and an ER physician at St. Elizabeth and Faxton-St. Luke’s hospitals in Utica, described efforts among emergency physicians to avoid overprescribing opioids for pain.
In contrast to his medical school training, where he was taught opioids carried little risk of addiction, physicians now recognize a certain segment of those prescribed the drugs will become addicted, and that he and peers in emergency medicine at MVHS have significantly cut their opioid prescribing, he told the summit.
Part of the approach was considering non-opioid drugs, along with frankly discussing addiction risks with patients, Kambhampati said. Opioids play a role, such as in a femur fracture, but for certain conditions they are not needed, and studies have firmly confirmed their use for headaches can worsen the condition, he said. Doctors and patients are realizing that eliminating pain may not be in patients’ best long-term interests and instead seek a state where a person is comfortable and able to recover.
“You can’t always have zero pain when it comes to certain things.”
Similarly, Dr. Joshua Lynch, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo, described work in western New York on reducing overprescribing among physicians and in making better use of medications that help break addictions.
Simplified protocols were developed on administering buprenorphine, which can help overcome opioid addiction, and prescribing it for patients after they are discharged from emergency rooms. Patients without insurance can get vouchers, and a major pharmacy chain has tentatively agreed to accept them anywhere in New York, he said.
Utica Police Lt. Stanley Fernald, also of the Mohawk Valley Crime Analysis Center, a sort of crime-data clearinghouse for the region, described how the overdose mapping system works. Officers contact State Police Troop D when they are dispatched to an overdose, giving time, date, the drug used and basic information about the victim. Information is used to spot trends, look for spikes in overdoses and fatalities, track repeat victims, and spot possible trafficking routes. Peer counselors can be sent to offer help to victims as well.
Certified peer counselors go through a training program with extensive treatment-setting work, learn to use overdose-antidote drugs, and train family members of people who have overdoses.
Such counselors are the bridge between patient, treatment and facilities, said Stephanie King, a certified peer counselor at the Utica Rescue Mission.
“We come with what we have. We come with what we know,” King said in her brief presentation to the summit. “We come to meet them where they are. We are equal to them ... that’s a lot more important to them than someone hovering over them.”
Cassandra Sheets of the Center for Family Life and Recovery, noted that more than 17,000 pounds of medications that could have been mis-used have been recovered from medication return kits distributed throughout the region in rural areas.
The Oneida County Opioid Task Force next plans to determine members and leadership of each of its newly established teams on prevention, response recovery and treatment. The task force steering committee is tentatively scheduled to meet Jan. 28.