Battling the borough’s drug epidemic

After compiling the borough’s stats and recognizing that more than 100 overdoses have occurred in public places over the past two years, Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon recently decided to take action.

His plan was to offer Staten Island business owners emergency opioid training.

“As the heroin and opioid epidemic continues to devastate the lives of Staten Islanders, we as a community are joining together to fight back,” the DA said in October after the announcement to launch his Opioid Safety Initiative for local Staten Island businesses. A joint effort between the DA’s office, Community Health Action Staten Island (CHASI) and Tackling Youth Substance Abuse (TYSA), the initiative aims to combat heroin and opioid abuse by educating local business owners and their staff on recognizing the signs of an overdose and how to react if one occurs in their establishment. “By giving local businesses the knowledge and tools necessary to prevent overdoses, we can save lives and better help those suffering from addiction illness find treatment,” McMahon continued. “I am proud to partner with CHASI and TYSA on this important initiative, which will benefit all people of Staten Island.”

According to the DA’s office, since 2016, approximately 130 overdoses have occurred outside the home and in public places. As part of the initiative, Narcan kits and training will be provided to participating business owners. The initiative aims to prevent fatal overdoses from occurring in bars and restaurants, such as the one that claimed the life of Staten Islander Jonathan Ayers, who fatally overdosed at the Red Robin in the Staten Island Mall two years ago.

Additionally, the initiative includes toolkits and signage with strategies on safety planning in case of an opioid emergency; the distribution of “Staten Islanders Against Drug Abuse” lawn signs and SIHOPE literature; Safe Ride Alternatives posters to display in establishments so patrons are aware of the alternative ways to arrive home safely to combat drunk driving, and ‘Angel Shot’ training and posters – when an individual feels like they are in an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation, they will be able to order an “Angel Shot,” which will inform the bartender how to step in and assist the patron. “We are informing businesses and the general public that opioid use of any kind creates risk of overdose and that steps can be taken to lessen risk of fatal overdose,” reported Donna Demarast, director of Harm Reduction at Community Health Action Staten Island. “And finally, we’re informing Staten Islanders that help is available. We’re encouraging our community members to reach out to ours and other organizations who provide education, harm reduction and substance abuse treatment services.” And according to Staten Island’s behavioral experts, there are a range of addiction services available from a variety of different borough agencies.

“There are number of initiatives throughout Staten Island that are making great strides at combating this epidemic,” said Joanne Pietro, associate executive director of psychiatry and behavioral science at Staten Island University Hospital, lauding the efforts currently being taken by Borough President Oddo and DA McMahon.

“SIUH also has a large continuum of services for the treatment of this substance abuse disorder,” Pietro added.

Pietro detailed the hospital’s Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program, which allows addicts to step down through the detoxification process, breaking the cycle of opioid dependence. “There is an unfortunate stigma attached to methadone treatment, causing a huge barrier for the program’s success,” Pietro said. “Suboxone (which is used to treat opiate addiction) doesn’t hold.

Methadone is for long term recovery and sobriety – it’s an evidence-based treatment that has been around for quite a while and does work, people who use it actually return to living normal lives. Our program uses methadone, an opioid, to treat pain and reduce withdrawal symptoms in people who are addicted to heroin or other narcotic drugs. It is known to lessen the symptoms without causing the ‘high’ that is associated with drug addiction. With withdrawal subdued, patients can more easily engage in counseling and therapy so that long-term benefits can be attained.” Pietro says the hospital also has a variety of on-site educational and vocational services and offers referrals to assist patients in continuing their education, whether they start a job training program or return to the workforce. And there are outpatient programs that treat both the patient and the family. “Families can come in for treatment even if their loved one is not in treatment,” Pietro said. “If a family member can learn to understand addiction, they will be in a better position to help the person they love who is in the throes of this disease.”

The hospital’s outpatient program is designed for addicts in mild to moderate withdrawal while the inpatient detoxification unit and inpatient rehab unit offer short term treatment – up to 28 days – and focuses on each individual’s unique needs. “People buy into this myth, this perception that there aren’t enough detox beds on Staten Island,” Pietro said. “But in reality our bed utilization is not anywhere near 100 percent. People also don’t know or understand the difference between inpatient and outpatient detox. They avoid seeking treatment because they think they have to commit to a month-long stay when that is not necessarily the case. Each patient is appropriately assessed upon admission – we make sure each and every individual is placed exactly where they belong.”

In terms of prevention, Borough President Oddo’s office has put a number of programs in place in schools. His office cites a three-pronged approach to the drug crisis: Prevention; Intervention and Treatment & Recovery.

“With the success of our Too Good For Drugs program, we have added Teen Intervene, an early intervention program to several high schools – Curtis, Port Richmond, Tottenville and Concord – which is part of a statewide pilot project with OASAS,” the BP’s office revealed in a statement. “We are proud to partner with the SIPCW, YMCA, UAU and OASAS on this program which is being very well received in schools. The Parents You Matter program also teaches parents and teachers to recognize the signs of drug use and how to step in.”

The office has also been instrumental in filling the gaps in accessibility to services for the addicted: Richmond University Medical Center now maintains an Opioid Overdose Prevention Program that trains users and their families on how to properly administer Naloxone. Peer programs are also now in place in local emergency rooms to match overdose victims with a peer to lead them to a treatment center instead of simply discharging them.

The District Attorney’s office, in partnership with Borough Hall and others, has recently rolled out the Heroin Overdose Prevention & Education (HOPE) program, which redirects low level drug offenders to community based health services instead of the justice system.

“There are so many organizations and groups working very hard to make a difference,” Pietro concluded. “We definitely have more work to do in terms of education and services but there is so much dedication on the part of local government and medical providers – Staten Island has really come together and we will eventually conquer this crisis.”