Opioid Task Force offers help during dark times for many

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International Overdose Awareness Day is the world’s largest annual campaign to end overdose, remember without stigma those who have died and acknowledge the grief of the family and friends left behind. Time to Remember. Time to Act.

As part of International Overdose Awareness Day, held last week, the Oneida County Opioid Task Force unveiled a series of new initiatives to help the community deal with the opioid epidemic.

The new initiatives range from a series of emergency Naloxone boxes to be placed throughout the community to a “boots-on-the-ground” response team for problem areas. The Task Force has also launched a new website with resources for the community.

“Everybody has to be a part of this. We need the community’s involvement, we need the public’s attention,” said County Executive Anthony J. Picente on Tuesday. He noted that the heroin and opioid epidemic is not just an issue in the Utica inner city.

“There is not one community in Oneida County that is exempt from this problem.”

The Oneida County Opioid Task Force was formed in 2016 as a multi-agency partnership that monitors drug overdoses throughout the county and provides help to users and their families. They are comprised of law enforcement agencies, county health agencies and third party health and human services agencies.

“We know that in many cases, and we’ve said this time and time again, addiction isn’t something that people look to do,” Picente stated. “At times, it comes as a result of other illness or injury. It comes as a result of mental health issues. And it spirals out of control, unfortunately.”

New initiatives:

• A new website has launched at www.OCOpioidTaskForce.org. The website is accessible to the public and will keep track of overdose data throughout the county. It will announce spike alerts and provide weekly surveillance reports, all readily available to members of the public.

“We know how important data is in any epidemic,” Picente stated. “Numbers don’t lie. The data you’re seeing is real time, real data.”

The website will also provide information on emergency response teams, overdose-related public events and offers of training to deal with opioids in your family.

• Narcan emergency cabinets will be placed at locations around the county to be used by the public in case of an emergency overdose. Similar to public-use defibrillators, these white, metal cabinets will be available to anyone who needs to help an overdose victim in an immediate emergency. The cabinets will contain two doses of the Narcan or Naloxone nasal spray, along with instructions on how to use the spray. Picente noted that the boxes will not have needles or complicated equipment, just a nasal spray similar to what people use for allergies and other common issues.

“The priority is to deploy these in areas of high opioid overdose burden,” Picente said. “We’re hoping to get out as many of them before the end of the year as we can.”

The boxes contain a QR code that can be scanned with a cell phone, which will let the county know the box has been used and needs to be refilled.

The county ordered 100 boxes, which arrived just this week, Picente noted. They have not yet placed any in the public. Businesses, churches, community centers and anyone else who feels they need a box in their area can sign up at the new website, www.ocopioidtaskforce.org.

• A series of street engagement teams have been put together from multiple county and independent agencies to respond to overdose “hot spots” throughout the county. Hailed as “boots-on-the-ground” outreach, these street teams will go into the communities to build one-on-one connections with residents and families who are suffering.

These teams will also provide medicine and care kits for a variety of community problems, including over-the-counter medicine, Hepatitis C testing, COVID-19 vaccinations and on-demand counseling.

“They’ll meet people where they are, meeting them one-on-one,” Picente said.

The teams will be comprised of people from county agencies, such as the Health Department and the Social Services Department, as well as ACR Health and other groups. Officials said they already have teams going to Oneida Square in Utica and the Village of Camden.

Sheriff Robert M. Maciol said on Tuesday that he often encounters critics of the county outreach programs, and he noted that these critics are often people who are “fortunate enough” to not have a family member or friend who is suffering through addiction.

“The way I look at it is pretty simple. The most important thing that I value, certainly as a sheriff, but probably more importantly as a dad, is family. Family is the single most important thing to me,” Maciol stated.

“So when someone is overdosing or someone is in need of services fighting an addiction issue, that someone is someone’s son or daughter or mother or father or brother or sister. To me, it doesn’t matter what brought them to that point, it doesn’t matter what walk of life they came from. To me, it matters that that is a human being. As the sheriff — and as long as I am the sheriff — the Sheriff’s Office will do whatever we can to save that life at the moment.”

Along with the new initiatives, the county also highlighted a series of ongoing programs conducted by the Task Force.

There is a post-overdose peer outreach program, in which trained advocates with ACR Health will reach out to overdose survivors and their families within 72 hours of a reported overdose to offer additional treatment and guidance to recovery efforts.

The Task Force also hosts a Leave Behind Naloxone Program, in which police and rescue personnel have Naloxone kits they leave behind for families at the scene of an overdose, to use in case of future overdoses. The Rome and Camden fire departments recently joined the Leave Behind program, and officials said they are looking to get every police, fire and EMS agency in the county to be a part of it. The Sheriff’s Office, Utica Fire Department and Whitesboro Police Department have already joined.

The Task Force also offers overdose care kits that can be distributed to people and families at high risk of overdose. The kits contain basic supplies, like water and alcohol wipes, along with other overdose prevention resources.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We’ve said this all along,” stated Sheriff Maciol. “But that is also a critical part to the equation. We need to have enforcement, we need to shut down the people who are bringing these things into our community. But we also have to think out of the box when it comes to getting our community, and the folks who are suffering, back on track.”

At Tuesday’s event, county officials also reminded residents that Narcan and Naloxone are publicly available to purchase for yourselves at pharmacies, and the county health services offer free training, both in-person and virtually, for how to use the drug to stop an overdose. There are also exemptions in criminal drug laws that spare people from getting charged and prosecuted if they are legitimately trying to help someone who is suffering an overdose, even if you are involved with the drugs yourself.

“Drug addicted people, particularly people who are addicted to opioids, are suffering from a very very difficult illness to overcome,” said Assistant District Attorney Grant Garramone. “I think a lot of those individuals want to overcome that illness, but it takes a lot of willpower and strength. The physical addiction, the psychological addiction, is strong and that requires a lot of support.”

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