Crisis hitting close to home
CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. » More than half of New Yorkers have been personally affected by opioid abuse, according to the first of a four-part poll on the opioid epidemic conducted by Siene College.
Based on the survey, 54 percent of New Yorkers have been personally touched by opioid abuse, and 24 percent of New Yorkers personally know someone who has died to an opioid overdose. Researchers were surprised by some of the numbers, but public health officials and elected officials weren’t entirely shocked with the results.
“Often we’re asked what finding is surprising in a poll. That one in four of us knows someone that this epidemic has taken and nearly six in 10 of us are currently touched by it is shocking,” Siena College Research Institute Director Don Levy said in a news release. “Touched by opioid abuse doesn’t even do justice to the extent. Sixteen percent of New Yorkers say that they or an immediate family member has abused opioids. One in four have a friend or extended family member that has abused opioids and fourteen percent know someone through work that has or is struggling with opioids. And, a quarter of us has had a friend or coworker share with them that one of their family members has abused opioids.”
Rensselaer County Director of Public Health Mary Fran Wachunas said the numbers didn’t surprise her. Wachunas said she deals with different communicable diseases all of the time, but opioid abuse continues to be problematic.
“We try to stop the spread of the disease, either by vaccination or education, but [opioids] hasn’t stopped, so we still are doing education and having events for public awareness,” Wachunas said. “It is still happening. It’s going to be a long-term project for us.”
In March 2016, Rensselaer County created a community co-
alition. The e-mailing list began with 70 people, but now more than 700 people are included in the conversation. Every six weeks, the group meets. Wachunas said more than 100 are involved at meetings.
“It’s still a topic that is near to people’s hearts,” Wachunas said. “They’re compassionate about it.”
In 2016, 33 people, ranging from 22 to 64 died from opioid- related deaths in Rensselaer County. In 2017, 30 people died from what appeared to be opioid-related overdoses, 28 of which are pending toxicology but two have been confirmed opioid related.
“We try everything. There’s not one answer to this. It’s just trying different ways of getting the
public aware of it,” Wachunas said. “Right now, we’re working with schools.”
Partnering with the U.S. Attorney’s office, the county since March has visited four high schools to show “Chasing the Dragon,” followed by a panel to give high school students perspective on how the opioid epidemic has impacted families, law enforcement, the DEA and others.
Cathi Duncan, Saratoga County’s director of health, agreed with Wachunas, saying the numbers didn’t surprise her.
“We have been tackling this problem here for a few years,” said Duncan. “I’m glad that they’re giving it more notice and bringing more attention, but this is something that has been on our radar.”
Saratoga County, just like Rensselaer County, has a coalition to address the issues of opioid abuse.
Over the past year, Saratoga County hosted forums in Halfmoon and Mechanicville. Just last week, the county helped with a forum at Maple Avenue Middle School in Saratoga Springs. Next week, there’s an open opioid community forum scheduled at South Glens Falls High School.
“We’re trying to bring awareness to the community but also to offer what is out there for help,” Duncan said.
During last week’s forum at Maple Avenue Middle School, Susan Hayes-Masa, a Saratoga County coroner, said Saratoga County lost 27 lives to the epidemic in 2017.
“It’s a nationwide issue. We are all affected,” Duncan said. “It’s unfortunate that everyone everywhere has been impacted by this epidemic. It is a national public health concern.”
Congressman Paul Tonko and State Sen. Kathy Mar-
chione of fered their thoughts on the released poll.
“The opioid epidemic cuts across every community and demographic. My own hometown of Amsterdam, a town of some 18,000, had four overdose deaths and a dozen close calls in a single month. When I sat down with group of individuals for our ‘Faces of Addiction and Recovery’ gathering last year, many of them shared memories of friends and family members they had lost. I hear the stories of mothers and fathers, siblings, friends and coworkers touched by addiction, every single week,” Tonko said. “Sometimes these are uplifting stories of recovery, often assisted by addiction treatment and support services available here in our Capital Region. But overdose deaths are still on the rise, and that tells me we’re still not doing nearly enough to win
this tragic fight.”
Marchione said she sadly didn’t find the poll surprising.
“Heroin and opioid abuse and addiction are nothing short of a public health epidemic,” said Marchione. “This epidemic does not discriminate and affects every community, every region, every demographic of our state. If anything, it is surprising that the number is not even higher than 54 percent.”
Additional numbers included in the survey found 80 percent of state residents
agreeing the United States is in the middle of an opioid epidemic and 83 percent think the problem of opioid abuse has gotten worse over the past few years.
The survey is part of a community effort by Prescription for Progress: United Against Opioid Addiction, a newly formed coalition of leaders in healthcare, media, law enforcement, education and business in New York’s Capital Region committed to raising awareness and taking positive steps to address the crisis.