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Westchester Unveils New Opioid Prevention Effort as Crisis Deepens

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Westchester County Executive George Latimer speaks last week at the launch of the Opioid Response and Overdose Prevention Initiative which seeks to address the spiraling number of overdoses in the county.

A sharp rise in Westchester overdose deaths since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted county health and law enforcement officials to partner on a new initiative to save lives.

County Executive George Latimer and District Attorney Mimi Rocah last Wednesday introduced the Opioid Response and Overdose Prevention Initiative (ORI) that coordinates strategies among the Departments of Community Mental Health, Health, Social Services, Public Safety, the Medical Examiner’s Office, the and the County Executive’s office to partner with the District Attorney’s office and local and federal law enforcement to try and reverse the disturbing trend.

Rocah said too many families across Westchester have lost loved ones in recent years. A serious problem before the onset of the pandemic, overdoses have continued to soar. In 2020, there were 119 overdoses in the county, representing about a 30 percent spike from 2019.

“Too many young people have struggled painfully with substance abuse and too many of our communities have shouldered the burden of this crisis, facing crime and sometimes violence driven by illegally trafficking opioids,” Rocah said.

The strategy will include collaboration on public health and law enforcement data sharing; identifying the communities most in need of overdose support services; provide more effective education, training and distribution of Narcan, a medication administered to reverse serious overdoses; increase community education, outreach and support services to populations in need; make access easier for those who need addiction, mental health and co-occurring treatment, harm reduction and family support services, including substance use prevention services; and implement evidence-based treatment approaches for individuals with addiction who are also struggling with co-occurring mental health needs.

Michael Orth, the commissioner of the Department of Community Mental Health, said the ORI initiative brings together the resources and those with the expertise to address the county’s opioid crisis.

As people have been more isolated over the past two years, the need to help people has exploded, he said.

“We have all seen the need before and since the pandemic as it relates to opioid and overdose,” Orth said. “Tragically, many of our residents have been impacted by opioids as a result of pain treatment (and) management, traumatic stress, addiction and co-occurring medical substance abuse.”

What has added to the crisis is the presence of fentanyl in those substances, said Terrance Raynor, deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. Fentanyl, which is inexpensive and easy for dealers to obtain, makes an opioid 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, he said.

Last year alone in Westchester, law enforcement recovered more than 11 pounds of fentanyl, 12,000 fentanyl pills, 20 pounds of heroin and 2,000 pounds of cocaine. It is fentanyl that has helped cause the explosion of overdoses.

“Many drug users do not realize the product they’re taking contains this deadly substance, which is the leading cause of overdose deaths throughout the country, hence the need for first responders to continue training in the use of Narcan in the hopes of saving lives,” Raynor said.

Some of the strategies use a novel approach. County Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler said, for example, public safety, the Department of Community Mental Health and Social Services are piloting a program to install lockboxes in homeless shelters that will contain Narcan and fentanyl test kits.

“Going forward, the unique expertise of the ORI representatives here is going to help us gain valuable insight into the way we understand this problem and presents us (a chance) to make even greater strides we hope in our overdose prevention efforts,” Amler said.

Latimer said he recognizes that solutions to ease the opioid crisis have been elusive but the county is making a bold statement to protect those who are in jeopardy of falling prey.

“This interdisciplinary effort is to try and save that other person who has a son or a daughter who’s in jeopardy from going through this and losing their life and then causing ripples all throughout the lives of their neighbors,” Latimer said. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent with this.”

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