“Staggering. A 21.8% increase in overdose deaths between 2019 and 2020 in New York State is simply appalling. More than 5,000 people lost their lives to substance use disorder, and their families are left wondering what they could have done differently. Sadly, this increase – the highest since 1999, was predictable. It was also preventable. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, advocates begged for support and basic resources. They knew that the pandemic and lockdown would have a uniquely devastating impact on people in recovery and those struggling with mental health issues.
They were right, of course. And we see this sad reality borne out in the finally released statewide overdose numbers, which I and many others have been demanding from the New York State Department of Health for months.
But the staggering increase cannot be attributed to COVID alone.
For years, the addiction crisis has been starved of vital, lifesaving resources. The result of chronic underfunding is a broken continuum of care, which left far too many vulnerable New Yorkers struggling with substance use disorder and their families to go it alone, as access to supportive services statewide is inconsistent and unreliable. When COVID-19 struck, the heroic frontline providers put themselves on the line, but simply did not have the necessary resources to meet the spiraling need.
The COVID-19 pandemic may be winding down, but we continue to be in the middle of a public health emergency: the overdose crisis. It is vital that we do all that we can to prevent more needless deaths. Ensuring that the opioid settlement funds are used to support proven harm reduction tools that work is a good first step, but not nearly enough, particularly not after years of disinvestment.
New York must:
- Increase access to medication assisted treatment (MAT), in correctional and community-based settings.
- Expand reporting of fatal and non-fatal overdoses to include more addictive substances and release data in real time, and then use that data to target resources where they are needed most.
- Eliminate prior authorization for people on Medicaid who need access to MAT.
- Authorize overdose prevention centers.
- Decriminalize possession of buprenorphine.
- Decriminalize possession of syringes.
And we must work together to destigmatize addiction. The only way you can allow 5,199 New Yorkers to die and change nothing is if you view those New Yorkers as less than human, as junkies who deserved what they got. The days when addiction was viewed as a crime or a moral failing are long gone; it is past time our state started acting like it and devoted the necessary resources and expertise to this growing public health emergency.”