To Assembly Member Gary Finch, the single most-important issue in the state is opioid abuse, which is a continuing problem in Cortland County as the number of overdose death rose by five in a year.
State Health Department data show 13 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017 — up from eight in 2016 and 2015. Heroin overdoses doubled to six from three; overdoses due to pain relievers went to 10 from six.
“I’m not surprised by the increase,” Finch (R-Springport) said. “It’s become a huge problem, not just a problem, an epidemic.”
Between 2009 and 2013, the state saw a 163 percent increase in heroin-related overdose deaths, to 637 from 242, and a 30 percent increase in opioid painkiller overdose deaths, to 952 from 735, according to the state Health Department.
The changes in overdose deaths in Cortland’s surrounding counties varies. Tompkins County stayed the same with 17 deaths.
Tioga County had two more, totaling eight in 2017 and Cayuga County saw a rise of three deaths, totaling 18 in 2017.
However, the counties of Chenango, Broome, Madison and Onondaga saw decreases. Chenango County even decreased its deaths to none in 2017, from five in 2016.
While the deaths are up, the number of times emergency responders administered overdose-reversing naloxone dropped to 48 in 2017 from 80 times in 2016. Naloxone was adminstered 44 times in 2015.
A representative from the Cortland County Health Department could not be reached for comment.
Finch has seen what opioid addiction can do. His cousin had died from an overdose, and three months later his cousin’s sister did the same.
“I don’t think you’re ever really cured,” he said. “It takes years. It damages the brain.”
Insurance companies will pay for seven days in rehab for people, he said, which is not enough. He wants to see more 90-day treatment centers established, but acknowledged doing so would be expensive.
“There are multiple relapses,” he said. “It’s not just you’re cured and its over.”
The Cortland Area Communities That Care Coalition is working with many Cortland County organizations to address the opioid problem. It produces and distributes harm-reduction and educational materials to increase awareness of the dangers of opioids.
So far this year, the coalition incinerated more than 1,880 pounds of prescription medicines through its biannual Take Back events, according to a statement from the coalition. Its next event will be Sept. 29, where the public is encouraged to clean out medicine cabinets to help keep drugs out of the waste stream, and out of the hands of those who might misuse them.
Finch said, he’s seen the issue be a problem among those in their 20s and 30s, and fears the issue may become more prominent in high schools.
Of the 20.5 million Americans 12 or older who had a substance use disorder in 2015, 2 million involved prescription pain relievers and 591,000 involved heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
State Sen. James Seward (R-Milford), chairman of the Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, said there has been a lot done already to try and fight opioids, but more remains to be done.
“We need to get the word out,” Seward said. “We need to continue our efforts more aggressively.”
He would like to get more naloxone — brand-name Narcan — into more people’s hands. Naloxone is used to help save people who are overdosing. It takes just about 45 seconds to a minute to work to save someone who is overdosing.
Finch keeps a naloxone kit in his car, as do police and other emergency responders.
The Cortland Area Communities That Care Coalition has partnered with the county Health Department to get more naloxone to professionals, businesses and the general population.
One of the most important ways to address the opioid issue is to discuss it, Finch said. There was a time obituaries were never given to those who overdosed, he said, but he has seen it more often now because people want to get the word out about the issue.
“Not everyone knows,” Finch said. “They think they know.”