County reconvenes task force as overdose deaths spike

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“We know treatment works. We know recovery is possible, and we know there’s help out there,” said Stephen Giordano, who directs Albany County’s mental health department.

ALBANY COUNTY — “An epidemic within a pandemic” is what the two co-chairs of the county’s opioid task force called the spike in overdose deaths since the start of the coronavirus here in March.

Seventy-two county residents have died of overdoses in the first nine months of 2020, said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy at Tuesday’s press briefing. During the same time period last year, the county had 50 overdose deaths, marking a 44-percent increase.

McCoy surmised that the number of deaths is actually higher, noting a time delay in receiving toxicology reports.

In all of 2019, Albany County had 62 residents die of an overdose; in 2018, that number was 55.

The task force, which McCoy reconvened this week, was first convened in 2017. “We’ve had more overdoses in 2020 than any year over the last five years,” McCoy said on Tuesday.

Factors contributing to this increase, he said, include social isolation during the shutdown to stem the coronavirus, economic uncertainty, difficulty during the pandemic in getting recovery and prevention services, and the presence of fentanyl.

“It shows up in 88 percent of those who died in 2020 ...,” said McCoy of the synthetic opioid analgesic fentanyl. “It can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. It can kill you in a heartbeat.”

Heroin was often laced with fentanyl, McCoy said, and increasingly it’s being found in cocaine and methamphetamines.

Albany County, he said, continues to offer weekly training, via Zoom, in opioid overdose prevention.

“We just scored a victory,” said Mccoy of an $898,000 federal grant the county received for its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, known as LEAD, which will be used to divert people with mental health and addiction issues from jail.

 

Task force

The newly reconvened task force combines the expertise of leaders in the mental health, public health, and law enforcement fields. It is co-chaired by Stephen Giordano, who directs the county’s mental health department, and by Elizabeth Whalen, the county’s commissioner of public health.

“I don’t know how we could have dreamed this up last year to be any worse,” said Giordano.

Albany County, he said, currently has more than 2,600 people receiving treatment for addictions. Over 1,500 are struggling in recovery from opiate use, abuse, and dependence.

Although Giordano called this “a very disturbing set of numbers,” he also said there is hope.

“Why is that hopeful?” he asked, answering himself, “Fifteen-hundred didn’t die of an overdose today.”

Giordano said a “confluence of factors”— ranging from loss of life to loss of jobs — was stressing even the healthiest,” although he noted, “There aren’t many of those left.”

The anxieties everyone is feeling are even more stressful for people with addictions, he said. But then Giordano again turned to hope.

“We know treatment works. We know recovery is possible,” he said, “and we know there’s help out there.”

Over 85 percent of the people being treated by the county are receiving evidence-based, science-based medication treatment, he said. Whalen said that treatment often begins in hospital emergency rooms.

Giordano concluded of the task force, “Our mission is through cooperation, integration, and collaboration, we can fight this. We have work to do but we are up for the task.”

Whalen stressed, “Prevention is essential.” She urged parents, “Have a conversation with your child on  drugs and addiction. It’s never too early … Knowledge is power.”

She also noted that prescription opioids are frequently a gateway to addiction. She urged residents to dispose of their unused prescription drugs “before they fall into the wrong hands.”

 

Statewide

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that the Metropolitan Transit Authority will begin a voluntary COVID-19 screening program for frontline employees. Free testing will be offered at rotating field locations and medical assessment and occupational health services centers to frontline transit workers.

Cuomo also announced that California has been added to New York’s travel advisory list. No areas have been removed.

The advisory requires people who have traveled to New York from areas with significant community spread to quarantine for 14 days. 

Neighboring Massachusetts now meets the criteria for the travel advisory. But like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, which met the criteria last week, Massachusetts is not added to the list. 

Given the interconnected nature of the region and that travelers typically drive, rather than fly, to New York from these states, the governor has said having them on the list is not viable.

However, New York State highly discourages, to the extent practical, non-essential travel between New York and Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania while those states meet the travel advisory criteria.

 

Newest numbers

According to Monday’s COVID-19 test results, the Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, has a positivity rate of 1.3 percent. Only one of New York’s 10 regions had a rate below the target of 1 percent: The North Country had a rate of 0.9 percent.

As of Tuesday morning, Albany County had 3,489 confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019, with 16 new cases since Monday.

Among the new cases, eight had close contact with someone infected with the disease, one reported traveling out of state, two are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings, and five did not have a clear source of infection identified at this time.

Currently, 1,132 county residents are under quarantine, up from 1,124. The five-day average for new daily positives dropped to 24.4 from 28. There are now 155 active cases in the county, up from 151 on Monday.

So far, 15,712 people have completed quarantine. Of those, 3,334 had tested positive and recovered.

Three more county residents were hospitalized overnight, bringing the number of county residents currently hospitalized due to the virus to 17; two of the patients are in an intensive-care unit. The hospitalization rate has increased to 0.48 percent from 0.4 percent.

“We’re seeing a real uptick in hospitalizations,” said McCoy. He noted that a member of his family has been hospitalized for a week. “Some people stay in longer,” said McCoy.

Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 140.

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More Regional News

  • Starting Saturday morning, no cash tolls will be collected on the New York State Thruway.

  •  Schools can stay open in yellow zones but 20 percent of students and staff must be tested each week for COVID-19. Houses of worship are limited to 50 percent capacity, mass gatherings are limited, and no more than four people can dine at a restaurant table whether inside or out.

  • If Albany County stays above the 3-percent threshold for 10 days, it will be declared a yellow zone, the least restrictive of the three zones in the state’s micro-cluster strategy, which began on Oct. 6.

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