Editorial: As opioid death toll grows, how should we respond?

On Saturday night in Hampton Bays, as a cold rain fell on a large crowd of the broken-hearted, speaker after speaker told deeply personal stories about how the opioid epidemic that is sweeping America has changed their lives forever.

At a candlelight vigil sponsored by the Southampton Town Opioid Task Force, parents described phone calls informing them that a son or daughter had overdosed and died. Wives told of husbands dying, and grandparents spoke about attending funerals for their grandchildren.  

Many of them emphasized that the crisis is not confined to any particular group of people or community. It crosses all levels of society and all ethnic groups. Opioid addiction and death have no home base — they are everywhere.

The stereotypical image of the “junkie” is a gross misrepresentation of what is happening in Suffolk County, on the East End and across this country, where more than 60,000 opioid-related deaths were reported in 2017. That’s more than the total number of deaths from the Vietnam war, and well above the number of automobile-related fatalities nationwide in that year. 

More than 400 opioid-related deaths occurred in Suffolk last year, exceeding the 2016 total — and with some toxicology reports still outstanding, or inconclusive, that number is probably low. The officially reported death toll is probably underreported, which makes these numb ers in this crisis even more frightening.

What we heard at Saturday night’s vigil was the sad aftermaths of these deaths, of how people are struggling with their losses, and how they are scared that one day they won’t remember the sound of a loved one’s voice.

There are no simple solutions to this crisis. Southampton Town has responded by creating a task force, and our police and fire departments have responded by keeping stockpiles of the lifesaving Narcan. We hear stories almost weekly of a police officer discovering someone in a car who has overdosed, or being summoned to a house via 911 to use Narcan to prevent a possible death. Some first responders have administered Narcan to the same person multiple times.

RelatedRemembering lives lost to opioids at candlelight vigil

Riverhead and Southold have not yet formed task forces, and we wonder whether a town-only committee would do any good at all. Perhaps the five East End towns should form a regional response. This is a regional crisis, after all.

An East End opioid task force could gather data from our police departments and first responders and measure the real scope of this epidemic and, perhaps, find ways to address it. It could also present its findings to the public at hearings. Let people understand how often Narcan is used, let them hear — as we heard Saturday night — how addiction has affected, and continues to threaten, our families. 

That might be a first step, however small, in scaling this huge mountain of a crisis — one that seems to get worse every year. Our towns already help fund a regional Drug Court and sponsor regular Narcan training sessions. These are appropriate responses. But what else could we do that would be effective? 

As we move forward, we need to think collaboratively about pooling our resources and talent to address this growing menace to our families, which also endangers first responders who must take care to avoid exposure to the powerful and often deadly drug fentanyl.

Several speakers talked of suing the pharmaceutical companies for the massive infusion of opioids into the marketplace. Perhaps towns, counties and cities should join in that effort with the goal of reclaiming some of the financial costs borne by towns, villages and first responders — and paying for more training and treatment.

On Saturday night, Robert Chaloner, CEO of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, said: “I think this is probably one of the most important public health crises we are facing right now. The number of lives that have been touched by the opioid epidemic is staggering …

“I think it’s important that all the major institutions, including the hospital, participate and do everything we can to mobilize our resources to fight this.”