The Ulster County executive has declared a public health emergency due to recent spikes in fentanyl-related deaths. The declaration came the day before county officials arrested a Kingston man on narcotics charges and recovered 10,000 bags of fentanyl and heroin.
Democratic County Executive Pat Ryan says that from January through July, opioid-related deaths increased 171 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
“We knew even before the COVID pandemic that the opioid epidemic was one of our greatest challenges and, as you said, I’ve prioritized tackling that epidemic really from the very first day in office,” says Ryan. “And it’s been difficult and really disheartening to see the numbers of overdoses and fatal overdoses in Ulster County are tragically up this year. Even halfway through the year, we’ve had more deaths from opiates than we had in all of last year.”
He says fentanyl-related deaths increased from 58 percent of all opioid-related deaths in 2018 to 89 percent of all opioid-related deaths from January through July this year. Ryan says the increases were a call to action.
“I declared, for the first time, to my knowledge, a public health emergency in the county specific not just to opiates but to fentanyl, which we know is 50 times more lethal than normal, regular heroin and 100 times more lethal than morphine,” Ryan says.
Ryan declared the public health emergency Monday, on International Overdose Awareness Day. On Tuesday, the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team, or URGENT, effected what Ryan says was URGENT’s largest-ever seizure. Dave Clegg is Ulster County district attorney.
“We just had a case today with a defendant named Schleede where they found actually 10,000 bags of heroin that was ready to be distributed in our community, and they tracked him down and he was arrested and is now being prosecuted by us for criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first degree,” says Clegg.
Clegg, speaking to WAMC Tuesday, says the 29-year-old was arrested after URGENT began an investigation into the sale of heroin and fentanyl at hotels and motels in the Town of Ulster, and the man was identified as a person of interest. Clegg says there is a general distinction between how his office treats a person battling addiction versus a trafficker.
“It’s a question of judgment. It’s a question of knowing what the background is. So we’ve had cases where you, and this, very terribly sad cases, where somebody sells drugs to their best friend and that best friend ODs, and they’re both using it because they’re addicts. So that’s a different kind of situation than one where we have a person who’s out there just dealing drugs to make money and is in a very serious level of drug-dealing and is trafficking all this chemically-treated heroin without knowing what the heck they’re doing,” Clegg says. “So you have to look at the facts. With the one case, we talked to the parents of the person who died, and they don’t want this young man treated in a way that’s going to send him to state prison for a long period of time, whereas with other drug dealers, we’re going to treat it much differently.”
To combat the crisis, Ulster County's Healing Communities Study (HEAL) team will be partnering with the Ulster County's Sheriff's office to create a spike alert communications plan to give real-time updates to treatment providers when there is a spike of overdoses, fatal or non-fatal, in a 24 hour period. The County Sheriff's Office will manage a data system that tracks these spikes.
Ryan says public awareness of the problem is key.
“We’re ramping up education and awareness. We’ve also dedicated significant additional funding to new approaches on treatment to really plug some of the gaps in the existing system,” says Ryan. “And, of course, long-term recovery, getting people back to living their normal lives is our ultimate goal that we always keep as our focus.”
He refers to $3 million in federal funding secured last year to battle the opioid crisis. In addition to the spike alerts, the HEAL team will also be creating a public education campaign on the risks of fentanyl and the prevalence of this toxic substance in the community. The campaign will include social media outreach and radio PSAs.