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Deadly mix of fentanyl, isolation, unemployment, could be driving opioid overdoses

Onondaga County Health Department
Opioid-related deaths for the past several years in Onondaga County.

There were 41 opioid-related deaths in Onondaga County in the first quarter of 2020, nearly one-third of the total amount of opioid deaths last year. That number has continued to rise over the past three years. Treatment providers say the COVID-19 pandemic is only making things worse.

Wil Murtaugh with ACR Health in Syracuse, which has a syringe exchange and Drug User Health Hub, said they’re seeing more clients, increasing monthly. They went from 16 people at their clinic in May, 30 in June, and now, one to two referrals a day. The biggest issue he said is that the regular supply lines of heroin and cocaine have been interrupted by the coronavirus.

“Somebody who might go to their local supplier can’t go anymore, can’t get there, or they can’t get the drug they’re distributing, and they’re going to someone new and different,” Murtaugh said. “Those drugs are mixed with more fentanyl, and they’re more dangerous because they’re stronger.”

ACR’s clinic is giving out double the amount of Narcan, used to reverse an opioid overdose and also test strips to check for fentanyl.

This comes at a time when the organization is struggling financially. They’re had to furlough 70 workers, about half their staff, waiting on $1 million they’re owed by New York State.

“This is more danger for people that use substances,” Murtaugh said. “You do not want to be crippled, like we kind of are right now, and not be able to provide 100% services.”

Telehealth visits, Murtaugh said, are also not as effective as seeing someone in person. Patients can hide their substance use and are not bonding as much with their providers. He said virtual Narcan training is not as effective, as well.

Jeremy Klemanski is the president and CEO of Helio Health, which has drug treatment facilities in Binghamton, Rochester, Utica and Syracuse.

“We’re seeing anything from 10, 20, 30% to full doubling, in some counties and some parts of the state, of overdoses,” Klemanski said.   

The biggest phenomenon he sees is that isolation is really detrimental to people’s substance-use conditions.

“In a social-distancing environment, where people were restricted from a lot of those activities that led to isolation, and that isolation for many people has proven to unfortunately, lead to fatal overdoses and relapses,” Klemanski said.   

He added that research shows a direct correlation between unemployment and overdoses. Onondaga County’s unemployment rate jumped to 16% in April, compared to a little more than 4% in March. It was at about 12% in June.

The latest number of opioid deaths from Onondaga County, are only for the months of January-March. Klemanski said the data lags significantly in New York State, as every county collects it differently, unlike the daily COVID data, collected in real time.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.