LIBERTY. NY — Substance use disorders harm everyone they touch. They harm people who use drugs, they harm the families and friends of those people, and they harm the communities that they …
LIBERTY. NY — Substance use disorders harm everyone they touch. They harm people who use drugs, they harm the families and friends of those people, and they harm the communities that they afflict.
A vigil held on Tuesday, August 31 in honor of International Overdose Awareness Day made that fact relentlessly clear.
Community groups from across Sullivan County, including Sullivan County Public Health, Sullivan 180, and the Kingfisher Project, gathered at the Sullivan BOCES campus in Liberty to remember those lost to overdoses. Local community leaders and public servants testified to the impact of the opioid epidemic, speaking from their work in the community and from their lived experiences with friends and family members harmed by or lost to substance use disorder.
There was hope at the vigil, with new programs announced and leaders standing together in support of people with substance use disorders. But the names said by attendees or listed on a row of paper bags below the podium, the names of people lost to the epidemic, kept the occasion somber, and stood as a reminder of the work left to do.
The impact of the opioid epidemic has been devastating in Sullivan County and nationwide. Jill Hubert-Simon, the opioid prevention public coordinator with the Sullivan County Department of Public Health, gave that devastation some statistical context during a Narcan training session held before the vigil.
Around 47,000 American soldiers died over the course of the Vietnam War, Hubert said. That many people were lost to the opioid epidemic in 2017 alone.
The numbers for Sullivan County were no less staggering. The county has been first in the state for opioid overdose deaths for years, with 38.4 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 and 48.8 per 100,000 in 2018.
There were two or more overdose calls a day to Sullivan County 911 centers in 2020, said Hubert. And these calls came from every corner of the county. “Every socio-economic status, every gender, every race, every ethnicity. No one is excluded.”
The extent of the opioid epidemic affected the strategies used to combat it. No one strategy or initiative could, on its own, combat the epidemic. Attendees at the vigil described a range of approaches, some focused on providing community support, others focused on saving lives in the moment of an overdose.
The NaloxBox project, announced at a press conference held as part of the vigil, belonged to the latter category.
NaloxBox is a Rhode Island-based initiative aimed at making Narcan as easy to access in public spaces as AEDs or fire extinguishers. The Sullivan County Drug Task Force has already installed Naloxbox units in schools across the county, said Sullivan BOCES superintendent Robert M. Dufour, and is working to make Narcan available in all public buildings.
In a separate initiative, the Sullivan County Department of Health offers free virtual Narcan training the first Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m., and provides free Narcan kits to all trained opioid overdose responders. (To register, visit www.bit.ly/3DO9xCj.)
Narcan kits and training are also available through Sullivan County pharmacies through the Naloxone Co-payment Assistance Program. Anyone with insurance can go into a pharmacy and receive a Narcan kit and training with no questions asked, and the program will cover up to a $40 co-pay.
Narcan was a valuable tool for saving lives, giving people suffering from overdoses the time to survive and to seek treatment. “It is a magic bullet of sorts,” said district attorney Meagan Galligan, speaking of her experiences with family members struggling with substance use disorder. “But it’s not enough, and it’s not going to get us exactly to where we need to be. What we need is all of the community supports that we’re pulling together in the task force.”
Those community supports help connect people suffering from substance use disorder with the resources they need to find treatment, or the support they need, so they know that they’re not alone.
H.O.P.E. for Sullivan County, one such support, is an information and referral hotline, providing resources for concerns about drug or alcohol use or health concerns; that number is 866/832-5575.
The Hope Not Handcuffs initiative provides more individualized connection between people seeking help and the resources that they need for treatment. Volunteers with that initiative help people suffering from substance use disorder navigate the paperwork and the process involved in getting treatment.
Despite the range of resources available to combat the opioid epidemic in Sullivan County, the epidemic continues to take lives and make an impact on county residents.
Alan Kesten spoke to those impacts from his experiences as an EMT, a firefighter, and a Sullivan County coroner.
In 2019, Kesten said, the Sullivan County Coroners Office handled 34 overdose fatalities, representing 30 percent of that office’s cases. That number rose to 41 fatalities in 2020, which represented 34 percent of cases; so far in 2021, the percentage was higher still, with 37 fatalities representing 42 percent of cases.
“The bottom line to my story is that we are failing in this project,” he said.
The efforts the county was making toward Narcan availability were important, said Kesten. “Every time we administer Narcan, we save a life.” At the same time, “This scares me, because why do we need this in our public schools? I know why. Because drugs are far-reaching. But the fact that we have to put a Narcan box in an elementary school needs to be addressed.”
Jessica Foshina spoke as well at the vigil, sharing her story as a person in recovery from drug use.
“Being actively involved in a substance-abuse disorder, you become very lonely,” she said. “You push away your family, you push away your friends, you push away anybody who wants good for you because you don’t want to hear it.”
Going from a life afflicted by substance-use disorder to living a sober life was a difficult transition, she said. Having treatment programs, people who cared about her and people in recovery to guide her made it much easier.
“I really would like to convey to the people who are suffering in this county… that there is hope,” said Foschina. “There is really good sobriety in Sullivan County.”