WATERTOWN — Over the weekend, Jefferson County experienced five suspected overdoses, with a total of 16 suspected overdoses occurring over the last week and a half — two of which were fatal. For the month of May, so far there have been a total of 22 suspected overdoses reported through ODMAP by first responders, with 41 suspected overdoses occurring in April — four of which were fatal.
The total number of confirmed overdose deaths in Jefferson County so far this year is 11, with four more pending, and it isn’t even June yet. Of the overdoses and those suspected of being overdoses, 73 percent were linked to fentanyl.
According to Stephen Jennings, county health planner, the county is on track to have the highest number of overdoses it has ever had, with a projected number of at least 33 overdose deaths by the end of the year at the current pace. Last year, there were a total of 20 confirmed overdose deaths. In response, Mr. Jennings said public health and other local agencies will most likely meet soon to discuss the problem further and brainstorm solutions because they’re “very concerned about it.”
Though many first responders log their numbers into ODMAP, not all are entering the numbers of overdoses or suspected overdoses. Because not all first responders enter data, there are likely more non-fatal overdoses in the community, Mr. Jennings said, and many more Naloxone administrations, as first responders and civilians are doing this frequently.
“Most of the activity has been in the last week,” Mr. Jennings said. “We haven’t had enough in a 24-hour period to issue a spike alert, which is for overdoses, but we’re keeping an eagle eye on that and we may be doing that if the pace keeps up.”
Spike alerts are issued when four or more overdoses, both fatal or nonfatal, occur within a 24-hour period.
Depending on the lab, results confirming whether suspected overdoses actually are or not can typically take between one to three weeks. At this point in time last year, there were two overdose fatalities in the county and a total of six through September before spiking in October. This year, the numbers are fast tracked.
The Alliance for Better Communities held its monthly meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss what is occurring in the community and how to address it. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this meeting was held via Zoom.
This month’s meeting featured guest speaker Robert Pezzolesi, who spoke about the impact of alcohol and opioid use, especially during the time of COVID-19. He has worked nationally and internationally as a public health advocate and consultant and is a founding convener of the Interfaith Public Health Network.
Mr. Pezzolesi’s work has focused on engaging and encouraging diverse communities toward population-level prevention policy. Before he shared his insights on the current overdose problem plaguing the county, the Rev. Jeffery Smith of the First Baptist Church, a former heroin addict, spoke to those gathered on the call about how many of his parishioners that are using say they do it because they’re feeling hopeless, they’re in despair and a lot are dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression and feel like there’s no hope, something he can empathize with.
“They’re trying to escape the pain that they’re going through and not only that, drugs are so readily available at this time; I mean you can buy a bundle of heroin as quick and easy as you can get a dozen eggs or local bread,” he said. “Watertown is flooded with drugs and not only is it flooded with drugs, it’s cheaper than it’s ever been and it’s stronger than it’s been, especially with this fentanyl. I can go 50 feet just about in any direction and find heroin or anything else, it’s everywhere.”
Following comments from the Rev. Smith, Mr. Pezzolesi shared a quote from Warren Buffett, published in an article about food policy: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” He said that what that really shows is the pandemic is bringing into greater focus a lot of these problems that have been there all along, like drug use and overdoses.
Mr. Pezzolesi went on to say that in terms of opioid overdose, from what he and his colleagues have seen and some of the research they’ve done on this, they’re seeing synergies among all these various pandemics.
“It’s pretty troubling that we had not been able to contain the epidemic of opioid fatalities when we were hit with this tsunami of COVID,” he said. “And then the increased vulnerability, including immune issues, for people that struggle with these drug problems and how that’s increasingly adding to these overall poor outcomes and other problems.”
There’s been a rapid acceleration in terms of telehealth and telemedicine, which Mr. Pezzolesi said is a positive thing overall, but with the caveat that it has to be done the right way and it’s good in a situation like this. While there are a lot of possibilities for it, he said it’s not something that can completely replace the advantages of in-person consultation.
Those in need are encouraged to reach out to the following community resources for people dealing with substance abuse problems:
— Anchor Recovery Center of NNY: (315) 836-3460
— Credo Community Center for Treatment of Addictions: (315) 788-1530
— ACR Health: (315) 785-8222
— Samaritan Addiction Services: (315) 779-5060
— Samaritan Medical Center - Social worker on call: (315) 785-4516
— Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
— Northern Regional Center for Independent Living: (315) 785-8703 business hours; and (315) 785-8708 nights and weekends.
— Mobile Crisis Jefferson County: (315) 782-2327
— Hope Line: 1-877-8-HOPENY or Text 46736