CITY HALL — As Staten Island and other New York municipalities continue to battle a drug overdose epidemic, some believe the answer can be found in local communities.
“New York is huge, we’ve got very diverse communities and neighborhoods in this city,” VOCAL New York policy director Matt Curtis said. “We need to have local solutions to this.”
VOCAL New York, a statewide advocacy group aiming to build power among low-income communities, organized a rally in front of City Hall on Tuesday to call for more support for combatting the problem. The group released a state policy platform calling for a public health approach in increasing services to “end the drug overdose epidemic.”
“I think different communities need different-tailored responses,” said Dr. Hillary Kunins, an assistant Commissioner of Health leading the bureau of alcohol and drug use prevention, care and treatment. “Staten Island is a great example — you see both heroin and prescription painkillers.”
Staten Island has seen some declines in opioid — painkiller — overdose deaths. But the borough, with around half a million residents, had the highest rate of prescription drug overdose deaths last year, according to the city Health Department. Staten Island also saw the second-highest rate of heroin overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.
Heroin overdose deaths were most recently concentrated in the South Shore and Mid-Island, according to the city’s 2012 to 2013 rate. At that time, Willowbrook and South Beach-Tottenville were among the top five neighborhoods with the highest death rates. The 2010 to 2011 rate had Stapleton-St. George in the top five.
Deaths from prescription overdoses were spread throughout the Island during both time frames.
One of the city’s concerns on Staten Island is that prescription overdoses are affecting younger groups, 35 years and younger, Dr. Kunins said. Middle- and upper-income groups are also more affected.
The Health Department partners with groups like the Community Health Action of Staten Island and the Tackling Youth Substance Abuse Initiative in the borough. The department also supports other groups through city contracts and there are several registered overdose prevention programs on Staten Island that give out the so-called “heroin antidote,” naloxone.
Last year, the city went “door-to-door” to more than 1,000 Staten Island health-care providers to educate them about proper opioid prescribing practices.
A CALL FOR BROADER SUPPORT
While targeted, local solutions help, Curtis and others said broader city and state initiatives are necessary too. As much as Staten Island may be different from the Bronx, both boroughs are part of the same epidemic, they said.
“They all need the same thing — and that is prevention services,” State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) said.
Heroin overdose deaths more than doubled in the city between 2010 and 2013, to 420 last year, according to the Health Department. Prescription drug overdoses increased 24 percent during the same time.
“The changes we’re seeing really affect every borough, they affect every age and ethnic group, they affect men and women,” Curtis said.
VOCAL New York presented a wide-range of recommendations Tuesday, including more safe injection facilities and more access to “evidence-based” drug treatment.
Though Curtis said the advocates aren’t asking for a specific dollar amount to fund their proposals, the group wants the city and state to double funding for harm reduction programs.
Those are services to people unable or unwilling to stop using drugs, such as increasing syringe access. VOCAL New York said filing gaps in underserved parts of Staten Island, among other places, should be prioritized in this effort.
“We need a lot more support for harm reduction services,” Curtis said.
Other proposals include devoting more resources to cocaine poisoning and decriminalizing drug possession. The group also hopes to increase access to naloxone.
In June, the state legislature passed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a package of bills aimed at combatting the growing heroin and opioid epidemic across New York.
Among the legislation is an expansion of the the “Good Samaritan” protection to individuals who administer an opioid antagonist like naloxone, which can be used to reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. The law allows community-based groups and pharmacists to administer naloxone in front of doctors but without prescriptions.
Though advocates want to further increase access, naloxone programs have already been expanding rapidly across the state, as well as New York City.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office is providing $1.1 million to the NYPD to equip 20,000 patrol officers with the drug. MTA officers will also carry naloxone and money secured from District Attorney Daniel Donovan will be used to equip officers in all four of Staten Island’s police precincts.