A report released last Friday showed that drug overdose deaths in Queens County surged during the pandemic, according to Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, surpassing the national rise in fatalities.
“In 2020, there were 391 overdose deaths, a 45.5 percent increase over 2019, when there were 268 overdose deaths. There is no question that the pandemic, which fueled a national drug abuse crisis, also hit us hard here in our borough,” Katz said in a press release.
Katz noted that there were nearly five times as many drug overdose deaths as the 82 homicides in Queens last year. The trends represent a multitude of pandemic-induced problems colliding with the city’s opioid crisis.
Social isolation, the loss of wages and added anxiety all escalate the risk of drug abuse, according to Bruce Goldman, senior director for behavioral health for Northwell Health, which runs addiction programs in Far Rockaway and Glen Oaks. Goldman was not part of the DA’s report.
“It’s a crisis upon a crisis,” he said.
Fentanyl, a highly potent opioid, has played a central role in the spike, according to the DA’s Office. Data compiled from the NYPD and the Office of the City Medical Examiner identify 71 percent of all suspected drug overdose deaths in Queens as involving fentanyl or fentanyl derivatives.
“Fentanyl is a dangerous, lethal drug — and often people don’t even know they are taking it because it is mixed with other drugs or sold as pills. Addressing this epidemic remains one of the greatest public health challenges facing current and future generations of Queens residents,” Katz wrote.
When federal, state and local health officials began putting controls and safeguards in place to cut back on the overprescription of opiates like oxycodone in the mid-2010s, people who were addicted to them started to look for alternatives, according to Adam Wandt, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor who has been researching how fentanyl is making it into the city.
A new wave of opiate addiction provided an incentive for drug dealers to supplement their product with synthetic drugs like fentanyl that were available cheaply in mass quantity. Over the past several years, fentanyl has poured into New York’s drug market in bulk through organized crime and the dark web, said Wandt.
The drug is dangerous because it’s extremely powerful. Because small amounts can lead to an overdose, it poses considerable risk not just to habitual drug users but to casual users as well. Often drug dealers will use fentanyl to cut heroin and make it go further or create black market opiate pills, but drugs like cocaine and even marijuana have been reported to have tested positive for fentanyl in recent years. As of 2019, Vice reported that the ratio of cocaine samples testing positive for fentanyl had risen from 0.4 in 2016 to 2.1 percent. The outlet later published that in April 2021 the NYPD found that 8 percent of seized cocaine samples had traces of the synthetic opioid.
“It is very feasible and somewhat common that people who take fentanyl-laced drugs don’t even know they’re laced with fentanyl,” said Wandt
Not only are cocaine users more vulnerable to overdosing on fentanyl because they are less likely to be aware of how to prevent opioid overdoses, but a lack of tolerance can also be fatal.
“A serial opioid abuser will build up tolerance to most opioids. So if they’re exposed to a powerful opioid, they might get sick off of it, they might stop breathing off of it, they might need Narcan, which is Naloxone. However, somebody without opioid experience and resistance within their body could die off of a very small amount of it,” Wandt said.
Goldman said that his experiences on the recovery side agree with the report’s findings. The toxicology testing at the outpatient centers he is in charge of show that about 50 percent of opiate users have fentanyl in their system.
The city needs to make sure that people understand how to get addiction treatment, he said. While existing patients continued to receive remote services during quarantine, the volume of new patients was low. Now he is starting to see that trend reverse.
“More recently as the world has been reopening up, we’re seeing the beginning of greater demand for services. And I anticipate in the next six months we’ll really see a big surge of people seeking help,” Goldman said.
In Queens, the 45 percent jump in deaths was significantly higher than the 30 percent national surge, reported by the National Center for Health Statistics.
The data shows 313 men died from overdoses, accounting for 80 percent of the deaths, while the number of women was 78.
The worst-hit age demographic for men is those 31 to 40, accounting for 97 — or 31 percent — of the deaths. In women the heaviest-hit age group was from 51 to 60 — or 29 percent. White men were most likely to overdose, with the racial demographics roughly following the makeup of the borough.
Across the country, 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Katz said that her office would remain committed to “equitable drug policies” and providing support through Queens treatment courts and specialized treatment courts.
The DA highlighted Queens Connect, a program in the Misdemeanor Treatment Court, as an example of her approach. The program provides participants with a variety of services, including an introduction to substance use and alcohol addiction treatment.
To find an addiction treatment provider, visit FindAddictionTreatment.ny.gov, call the 24/7 state hotline at 1 (877) 846-7369 or text 467369 for free and confidential help.