As attention continues to grow over the drug epidemic that’s hit Putnam County and the Hudson Valley region, county officials set the record straight on how many drug overdoses have resulted in fatalities so far this year.
During a Health Committee meeting of the county Legislature last Wednesday, Deputy Commissioner of Social Services Joe DeMarzo said there have been three confirmed overdose deaths so far in 2017. Over the past several weeks, there has been rampant chatter and rumor that there were already double-digit overdose fatalities this year, but county officials stressed that’s wildly inaccurate.
“People throw around these overdose numbers like they know what they’re talking about and it’s very scary and frightening,” DeMarzo said. “If someone is giving you a number please find out where it came from.”
DeMarzo still stressed, “Three is way too many.”
Two of those overdoses are from mixed drugs including heroin and one death included fentanyl, DeMarzo said.
Acting Commissioner of the Department of Health, Dr. Michael Nesheiwat, who is also a county coroner, said there have been 19 coroner cases this year. Of the 19 cases, eight have been confirmed natural deaths, four accidental deaths (three are from drug overdose), and seven cases are pending.
Overall, there have been 77 fatalities from drug overdose since 2012, Doreen Lockwood of the National Council on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependencies/Putnam (NCADD), said. Most overdoses come from mixed intoxication, Lockwood said.
Nesheiwat, in an interview, said there were 15 drug overdose deaths in 2016; in 2015 there were 14 overdose fatalities; in 2014 there were 11 overdose deaths; in 2013 there were 14 drug overdose deaths; and in 2012 there were a whopping 20 deaths because of drugs.
Talking with colleagues from other states in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, DeMarzo said they’ve seen a spike in fentanyl. The synthetic opioid is cheaper and can be created by dealers with the right ingredients.
Lockwood added the opioid could actually be deadlier than heroin and DeMarzo said it’s dangerous to the touch because it absorbs into the skin.
While it’s perceived that the heroin crisis is only hitting younger people, that’s not necessarily the case. Twelve overdose deaths since 2012 are people 25-years-old or younger. The biggest spike in drug overdose deaths comes from residents between 26 and 35 and 41 from residents between 26 and 35 and 41 to 55, Lockwood said. She noted residents even older than 70 have died from a drug overdose.
“The perception is that it’s kids and it’s not,” DeMarzo said. “It goes across the board.”
DeMarzo said many drug addicts have used other substances like alcohol and/ or marijuana and Lockwood added more than half of heroin addicts started with prescription drugs.
So far, year to date, DeMarzo said the county has collected more than four tons of unwanted prescription medication that residents drop off. There are two dedicated medication take back days each year and several boxes throughout the county where residents can dump unwanted prescription drugs.
“Any death from this epidemic of addiction is a preventable death because addiction is preventable,” Lockwood said. “And there is a lot of help available.”
According to a scientifically based survey from 5,000 local students, 26 percent have tried or used marijuana and 32 percent of teenagers are actively drinking in the county. DeMarzo said in focus groups, teenagers are confused about the mixed messagetheygetfromthemedicalsociety about how marijuana is an acceptable medication. Teenagers question how marijuana can be dangerous if doctors prescribe it for patients, DeMarzo said.
One bothersome stat is 18 percent of local high school juniors and seniors have gotten into a vehicle with driver who is intoxicated, DeMarzo said. He said the stat doesn’t reveal whether that teenager got into a car with an older sibling, a friend, or even a parent under the influence.
“It’s a scary thing going on,” DeMarzo said.