January 27, 2022

Opioid ODs, deaths continue to ravage communities

Photo Illustration by Todd R. McAdam

Cortland County police and sheriff’s officers reported a record number of instances where they administered naloxone in 2021 as health officials said a number of factors — including isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic — pushed drug use in Cortland County.

It’s a hell of a way to wake up: Pain — muscles, joints, even bones. Soaked in sweat. Vomiting. Anxiety. Cramps. Fever.

It’s enough to send a person addicted to opioids back to the opioids he overdosed on. And that happened to Joshua LaPlant more than a dozen times — in 2020 alone.

Naloxone brought him back each time, but it didn’t help with his addiction.

Cortland County police agencies have administered naloxone in record numbers in 2021, data show. Still, Cortland city police saw 10 people die of overdose in 2021, six of them from opioids.

That’s less than the 21 opioid-related fatalities that Cortland Area Communities that Care recorded in 2020, but those deaths include incidents where police were not involved, and remain preliminary. Preliminary state figures show Cortland County lost eight people to opioids in 2020, nine in 2019, four in 2018 and 14 in 2017.

“COVID was an addict’s dream and nightmare,” said LaPlant, a Cortland native. “There was a lot of free money and a lot of free time.”

CORTLAND’S OD CASES SPIKED

“It’s definitely a pandemic of its own,” said Cortland Police Deputy Chief David Guerrera. He’s never seen so many overdoses or deaths. “It’s sad.”

City police responded to 10 fatal drug overdoses in 2021. Six of those deaths were caused by opioids: five were from heroin and one from hydrocodone, the opioid commonly known as Vicodin. Two other deaths were from overdosing on cocaine, one was from an unknown drug and one was from overdosing on the hallucinogenic MDMA, also known as Molly.

In 2020, the Cortland Police Department dealt with seven total drug fatalities — up from the one it handled in 2019, and none in 2017 or 2018, department statistics show.

Of the six opioid fatal overdoses in 2021, naloxone was administered in two, data show. Twenty-eight people were revived with naloxone.

Cortland County sheriff’s officers administered naloxone on eight occasions in 2021, totaling 22 doses, show data obtained under a Freedom of Information request. One person needed six doses.

They administered naloxone twice in 2020. From 2017 to 2019, deputies administered naloxone to an overdosing person on four occasions a year. In 2016, officers administered naloxone five times.

ISOLATION FUELED DRUG ADDICTION

COVID-19 unemployment benefits and federal stimulus programs gave LaPlant several thousand dollars, most of which went to feeding his addiction —heroin, fentanyl and bath salts.

“At one point, I was getting $600 a week for doing nothing,” he said. “I got heavy into heroin in summer 2020 and my habit grew. That’s when everything got out of hand.”

The American Medical Association reported in November that the COVID-19 pandemic made the nation’s drug overdose epidemic worse — every state has reported a spike or increase in overdose deaths or other problems during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sara Watrous, project director at Cortland Area Communities That Care, said data indicate an increased presence of fentanyl to be the culprit behind a more toxic drug supply nationwide. Dealers add it to heroin to make it cheaper and more profitable. It’s also much more dangerous.

Dr. Nicole Villapiano, an internal medicine physician and member of the Cortland County Health Board, has noticed an increase in drug addiction among her own patients.

“In my own practice, opioids tend to be the highest prevalence,” Villapiano said Wednesday. Patients are also starting to use anti-anxiety and panic disorder drugs, such as Xanax, that are benzodiazepines. “When they are used together, they are lethal.”

As people lost jobs, became more isolated and suffered despair during the pandemic, addiction increased across Cortland County and the nation, she said.

“There’s a lot of patients in our community,” Villapiano said Wednesday. “There’s also a lot of people in recovery. So there’s hope for people.”

HELP IS AVAILABLE

While fentanyl makes opioids far more deadly, Lisa Hoeschle executive director of Family & Children’s Counseling Services, which distributes naloxone and teaches people how to use it, said isolation is deadlier still.

In 2020, Family & Children’s Counseling Services distributed 132 naloxone kits. In 2021, 769 kits were distributed.

“It’s a symptom of isolation. Addiction treatment is almost always better when you can offer group options for treatment as well as individual sessions,” Hoeschele said. “You need to create a support group, and it’s very challenging to do that virtually.”

LaPlant said that something he has learned over the past decade is that you can’t force someone into sobriety.

“If they’re not trying to get clean themselves, they’re not going to do it,” he said. “Chances are if that mental switch doesn’t happen, and they don’t believe it in their heart, then they’re not going to run with it.”


Where to find help?

  • Primary care doctors.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health services national helpline: 800-662-HELP (4357).
  • Findtreatment.gov.
  • Family Counseling Services of Cortland County, Inc: 607-7530234.
  • The Reach Project, Inc. in Ithaca: 607-273-7000; www. reachprojectinc.org.
  • Beacon Center, Opioid Treatment Program in Utica: 716-8311937.

NOT THE LIFE HE’D DREAMED OF

LaPlant spent most of 2020 homeless, carrying his duffel bags from one acquaintance’s couch to another. It wasn’t safe; he was afraid he’d be robbed, and never stayed more than a few days at a time.

It wasn’t the life LaPlant imagined for himself. He grew up in a good neighborhood. He had several college degrees. But summers of partying got him hooked on drugs.

“In 2014, during the summertime, I got into heroin and brought that addiction back to college with me,” LaPlant said. “I ended up failing out of college that last time, and looking through my old notebooks you can see that I was way too high to even be taking notes – my letters, numbers and words were just drifting off into scribbled lines.”

A few years later, he was arrested for driving while under the influence and spent a week in jail. This gave his body the time it needed to go through withdrawal. His mom sold her farm to pay for bail, and he stayed clean for the next three years.

NALOXONE ISN’T THE SOLE SOLUTION

Naloxone stopped the overdose, but it didn’t stop the addiction, LaPlant said. In some ways, naloxone made him yearn for opioids more than ever.

The rapid reverse of an opioid overdose flushes the drugs out of the system, LaPlant said, leaving the user in extreme pain and discomfort – causing many addicts to turn to drugs as a solution to their withdrawal symptoms.

“Naloxone stays in your system for about 30 minutes or so, which is why the hospital wants to sit with you and make sure you’re not going to overdose again – once it wears off, that is a possibility,” LaPlant said. “But people are trying to get high again immediately, to cut the amount of time on withdrawals. Once Narcan wears off, you do another bag and the opiates fill your receptors and you start feeling better.”

OVERDOSES AREN’T UNCOMMON

While data show deaths and overdoses are up, some overdoses are never reported, Guerrera said.

Guerrera said police find they are called only if an initial dose of naloxone was not enough.

LaPlant said he lost five people close to him to overdoses in the past two years.

Social influences and peer pressure led to LaPlant’s relapse with heroin in early 2019. By 2020 things had spiraled out of control. In September, the mother of his youngest daughter died from an overdose.

“I had gotten high in a hotel room and passed out for a couple of hours, and woke up to her overdosed next to me,” LaPlant said. He administered naloxone – several doses. He tried CPR. He called 911.

“But she ended up passing away,” he said. “After she passed, everything spiraled out of control – the only way I knew how to deal with any kind of emotion, was to get high.”

TREATMENT IS A NECESSITY

Law enforcement is not enough to end addiction, Guerrera said.

After police intervene at an overdose, Guerrera reports the person’s contact information to Family Counseling Services so it can offer treatment and counseling. That initiative started in 2019.

“Treatment’s a big thing,” Guererra said. However, a 2020 bail reform means people accused of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies are set free without bail – and without an opportunity for law enforcers to point them to services.

A needle exchange, where drug users can learn about addiction services as they swap used needles for clean ones, would also be helpful, Guerrera said. Last fall, the Cortlandville town board and the Homer village board both voted to allow a mobile needle exchange and support services vehicle from the Southern Tier AIDS Program to come to local opioid users and others with syringes.

“Treatment works. We can find a way to make it work for everybody,” Villapiano said. “It often takes a couple of tries for them to kick the habit. But we’ll stick with them.”

100 DAYS CLEAN

Drug court is another avenue to treatment. In the year following his ex-girlfriend’s death, LaPlant had accumulated several felonies and misdemeanors and was placed in drug court, which landed him in rehab.

“I spent a month there, and within 36 hours of being back in Cortland I was back at it again,” he said. “One of the biggest things that finally happened for me, was I got it through my head that Cortland was not a good spot for me.”

Now, LaPlant is an out-patient at a halfway house in Oneida, where more than a dozen men are starting their journey toward sobriety.

“This time around, with sobriety, I am over 100 days clean,” LaPlant said.