Deaths attributed to opioid drug overdoses in Broome County totaled nine for this year’s third quarter, according to statistics released by Broome County District Attorney Stephen Cornwell. The statistics bring this year’s overdose death count to 33 — a far cry from previous years.
In 2016, 53 people had died by the end the year’s third quarter. The year ended with 76 people dead. But since then, Broome County’s overdose fatality numbers have slowed, with 22 people dying through the third quarter of last year.
Still, the numbers are far from ideal. This year’s running count of overdose deaths is already higher than in 2018, partially because of a shipment of fentanyl-laced heroin that arrived in the region in March. The shipment caused at least six deaths in a 10-day period and prompted Broome County Executive Jason Garnar to declare a state of emergency.
In an effort to continue decreasing overdose deaths in the county, Garnar joined with other government officials in April to form a Drug Overdose Response Team, which he said is prepared to act quickly to reduce drug-related casualties.
Truth Pharm, a grassroots organization dedicated to raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with disorders involving opioids, interacts with opioid users and provides them with test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl. By employing these test strips, users can test their heroin supply for the presence of the deadly additive, avoiding the higher risk of death associated with fentanyl-tainted heroin.
Alexis Pleus, founder and executive director of Truth Pharm, said she visits Binghamton University to give presentations around once a week, carrying out her group’s mission on campus through student groups. Pleus said Broome County still has a long way to go in combating overdose death, especially since official statistics are an undercount of actual fatalities.
“If someone overdoses and dies after a few days on life support in a hospital, the cause of death is often listed as a heart attack,” Pleus said.
These deaths are not included in the overdose statistics, she said, adding that overdoses with prescription drugs are also not typically counted.
Garnar praised the work of Truth Pharm, which he said reaches drug users who could not be helped by other groups. He said his work aims to build off local outreach efforts, recalling that when he took office in 2017, detox units were overwhelmed with calls for treatment and people would have to wait for weeks to get it.
“Right off the bat, the first step is getting people detoxed,” Garnar said. “We didn’t have anywhere near the detox capability that we needed. The minute someone who is addicted decides that they want to stop using, they are not going to wait very long for a bed. Inevitably, within an hour or two, or maybe a day or two at the most, they’re going to start using again if they don’t get the help they need to detox.”
Garnar helped convince New York state to fund a $3 million, 50-bed detox center at the former Broome Developmental Center. Expansion is underway to double the facility’s bed count and offer extended service.
“By the end of 2020, we expect to have 50 additional beds designated for long-term use where people can stay for six to 12 months,” Garnar said.
He said he hopes immediate access to detox can help decrease the opioid crisis’ death count in Broome County.
“Within 14 months of me taking office, we had the whole thing up and running,” Garnar said. “From 2016 to 2018, we cut fatal overdoses by 60 percent, which is unheard of.”
BU is also aiming to prevent opioid casualties, and was the first university in the state to be certified by the New York State Department of Health for its Opioid Overdose Prevention Program (OOPP), which trains nonmedical individuals to administer overdose preventatives, like Narcan, according to Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at BU.
“[The University’s OOPP] is geared toward offices like Residential Life, as it has the most contact with students, faculty and staff on campus,” Yarosh wrote.
Hui Zhu, a junior majoring in chemistry, said he is aware of the opioid crisis, but doesn’t know anyone that uses the drug. One of his roommates volunteers for Harpur’s Ferry, but he said he did not know emergency responders on campus carry Narcan. Still, he is concerned about long-term treatment options.
“I’m wondering if students and local people who need treatment have access,” Zhu said.
Garnar said overdose reduction efforts touch everyone in Broome County, including students and faculty.
“The epidemic affects everybody, students and nonstudents alike,” Garnar said. “All of the services we have are always available at any time to students who are struggling with addiction. I’ve also worked with students who have helped raise money and raised awareness.”