The U.S. Surgeon General on Thursday recommended that those who take opioids, as well as their friends and family, should carry the lifesaving drug naloxone to use in the event of an overdose, addressing head-on a national epidemic that has hit hard on Long Island.
“You don’t have to be a policeman or a firefighter or a paramedic to save a life,” said Dr. Jerome Adams, the nation’s top doctor, who spoke at the National RX Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta.
The advisory was welcomed by drug-treatment experts and officials locally and across the nation, as opiate addiction continues to take tens of thousands of American lives annually.
Last year, an estimated 600 Long Islanders fatally overdosed, and an additional 1,200 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties were revived from overdoses with naloxone, officials said. In 2016, more than 42,000 Americans died of opiate overdoses, more than any year on record. Those deaths were among the 63,600 fatal drug overdoses overall that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Noting that more than half of opioid overdose deaths occur at home, Adams urged those who use opiates for pain or who are addicted — and those close to them — to have ready access to naloxone, also known by its brand names Narcan or Evzio, which can restore breathing if injected or administered as a nasal spray.
It was the first general public health advisory issued by the Surgeon General since 2005, when an advisory about prenatal exposure to alcohol was issued.
“I think he’s right on point,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association, which provides substance-abuse treatment programs on Long Island. “I was in Atlanta for the announcement and to have that kind of definitive proclamation from the Surgeon General goes a long way to raise awareness about the need for universal access to naloxone.”
“I think naloxone should be as ubiquitous as EpiPens and defibrillators,” said Reynolds, who also emphasized the need for prevention and treatment programs.
Critics have questioned whether ready availability of naloxone makes people more likely to abuse drugs or resist treatment, knowing they can be revived if they overdose. Adams dismissed that claim, while also noting that its use should be in conjunction with expanded access to evidence-based treatment.
“There are people out there who think naloxone doesn’t make a difference: You’re just going to go on and misuse substances again,” he said Thursday. “That would be like me saying I’m not going to do CPR on someone having a heart attack because if we save them, they’re just going to go out there and eat fast food and be back here all over again.”
In a statement, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone applauded Adams and cited the county’s ongoing efforts to train Long Islanders in the use of naloxone.
“The Suffolk County EMS has trained more than 10,282 people in the county to date,” he said. “Hospitals, which are linked to the county’s program as Alternate Dispensing Sites, have trained an additional 949 people.”
Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, a treatment program that runs Suffolk County’s 24-hour hotline (631-979-1700), said the agency was the first to put naloxone in the hands of substance abusers, and over the last eight years had trained over 14,000 people to use it.
“We will train you in the office, we post our trainings online or you can walk in anytime and we will train you within 20 minutes and you’ll walk out with a lifesaving kit for free,” he said.
Reynolds said substance abuse is a “chronic relapsing condition where it’s not uncommon to see multiple overdoses, and there are times when people need multiple interventions. Addiction is not a rational disease, and the fear of death doesn’t necessarily change patterns of use.”
“The availability of naloxone doesn’t increase one’s use in any shape or form,” Reynolds said.
The moral question, he said, is “do we care about them enough to keep them alive long enough to ever make it into a treatment facility.”
Tatiana Green, 28, of Franklin Square, who stopped using drugs seven years ago, was revived by naloxone at 18 after an overdose of opiate pills and immediately returned to using drugs, she recalled Thursday when asked about Adams’ recommendation.
“I didn’t care,” she said. “I didn’t think about if I was going to die. I didn’t want to deal with life. I just wanted to feel good and get high.”
But naloxone helped keep her alive long enough to get to the point where she was ready for recovery, at age 21.
“Finally I said I can’t live like this anymore,” said Green, who now has a recovery coaching business and is a singer-songwriter. “Anytime you save someone with Narcan, you give them the chance to live and recover even if they’re not ready yet to stop using.”