Task force launched to address County’s struggle with opioids - BlueStone Press
November 19, 2019
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Task force launched to address County’s struggle with opioids

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County Executive Pat Ryan launched an Opioid Prevention Task Force on July 10. The task force, led by Vincent Martello, aims to decrease opioid deaths in Ulster County by 50 percent in two years. In 2016, Ulster County had the highest rate of opioid overdoses per capita in the state, and since then has gone down to second highest.

“The numbers are trending down somewhat, so that’s a bit encouraging,” Martello said. “But we’re not celebrating, we’re doubling down.”

In 2016, there were 3,069 opioid overdose deaths in New York state, or a rate of 15.5 per 100,000 people, according to the New York State Department of Health. Ulster County had 54 deaths – a rate of 30.1 per 100,000. Ulster County had the highest rate in 2016, but according to Martello, who has access to updated data, Ulster County now has the second-highest rate.

Martello said that thus far in 2019 there has only been one opioid overdose death in Rosendale. He doesn’t have access to the same data for Marbletown and Rochester, but said he believes the numbers are similar.

“The real hot spots are the City of Kingston, the Town of Saugerties, Town of Ulster, Marlboro and Ellenville,” Martello said. “I don’t know specifically about Marbletown and Rochester, but I suspect a parallel between Rosendale on the lower end.”

In March, Ellenville police confiscated enough fentanyl to kill five times the Ellenville population. Ellenville Regional Hospital CEO Steven Kelly said the opioid crisis has caused the hospital to alter its practices. They’ve changed their protocols to reduce giving opioid medication for pain by 97 percent.

“Yes, in cases of some car accidents, when they are here for a short time, it [opioid pain relief] can be very effective,” Kelly said, but they made the decision to basically stop prescribing it at the hospital.

The task force is using a “three pillar” approach to bring opioid deaths down 50 percent in two years. The three goals are: reducing supply, reducing demand, and improving treatment and recovery.

“We took a really deep dive with the task force into best practices best and promising practices from around the country,” Martello said.

Their plan to reduce supply is to support law enforcement’s anti-drug trafficking efforts, improve medical prescribing practices, take back people’s unused prescription pills, and to pressure the pharmaceutical industry to end “aggressive marketing” of opioids. According to the task force’s website, there is a direct correlation between opioid prescriptions and opioid addiction, and Ulster County has the sixth highest per-capita rate of opioid prescribing in the state.

To reduce demand, the task force plans to study substance use trends, educate people of all ages about opioids, and encourage community engagement and pro-social engagement opportunities. These opportunities could include arts, music, sports, youth groups or church groups, to name a few.

“The chief mitigating factor is for kids to be involved in pro-social ways,” Martello said. “It diverts their attention away from drugs, and away from the situations where they can get themselves into trouble.”

Their plan for improving treatment and recovery services has many aspects, including helping people find treatment options and insurance coverage, destigmatizing the problem, and diverting from drug arrests to treatment.

“Substance use disorder – opiate use disorder – is a chronic disease, and it should be treated as such, not necessarily as a crime,” Martello said.

Kelly said a big factor in improving treatment and preventing deaths was training people to use Narcan, the brand name for a device that administers naloxone nasal spray antidote to overdose.

“Five years ago, they would arrive at the hospital already dead, they would come in by ambulance found along the roadside, put there by people who were scared to come forward,” Kelly said. “Now we don’t see this because the Narcan is working and the drug-using population is smart and has access to Narcan.”

The task force is also working with a lot of community organizations, Martello said, to do research and help meet their goals.

“We have a lot of really great organizations and really great people doing great work,” Martello said. “That’s the power of what's called collective impact, which is that government's not doing it alone, no individual entity is doing alone, but when you put [them] together, the total is much greater than the sum of its parts, and it becomes a very powerful force for change.”

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