SCHENECTADY COUNTY — The surge in drug overdoses Schenectady County saw this week was tied to dangerously adulterated cocaine and may have been exacerbated by the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on drug users and treatment programs, officials said Thursday.
County Public Health Services issued a highly unusual alert Wednesday night after the county saw eight overdoses in just 24 hours, all of whom were brought to Ellis Hospital for treatment. Police agencies are investigating.
Schenectady police and firefighters were able to reverse some overdoses with Narcan, but in Rotterdam, a woman was found dead after police were called to a location Wednesday morning where two people had overdosed. The other person, a man, survived.
Rotterdam Police Detective Lt. William Male said the town experienced a third overdose overnight Wednesday. It was non-fatal, and also appeared to be tied to the tainted cocaine, which public health authorities believe probably included the highly lethal synthetic painkiller fentanyl, or a similar substance.
“In a lot of these situations you do see the same batch [of drugs] circulating throughout county,” Male said. “We do see it occasionally, where drugs are adulterated.”
Drug experts say powerful fentanyl is comparatively cheap and easy to make, so it is sometimes combined into more expensive drugs like heroin or cocaine for economic reasons, as well as the boost it gives the user’s high.
“I think it definitely comes down to economics,” said Laura Combs, executive director of the New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady. “People are looking for cocaine, and the dealer has what they have. They are not thinking about safety of, or danger to any of their customers. It’s really despicable.”
On Wednesday night, Keith Brown, Schenectady County’s interim public health director, posted a warning on Facebook urging people not to use cocaine, especially if they are alone.
“If you know anyone who uses cocaine in the Schenectady area it looks like fentanyl or another analog is in some of it. There’s been a spike in ODs today,” he wrote.
In an interview on Thursday, Brown said there are instances of similar drug overdose spikes elsewhere, including some places in the Capital Region, but the spike this week in Schenectady County “is definitely an anomaly.”
Brown said there is no central source collecting information on overdoses as they happen, but “to my knowledge this is the first dramatic spike we’ve seen in the county. We always think the default should be to alert people,” he said of the decision to issue an alert.
While it is much more common for overdoses to involve heroin, Brown said the mixing of fentanyl into cocaine may be tied to how pandemic restrictions have limited cross-border travel, making the supply of illegal drugs from Mexico or central America less reliable.
The federal Centers for Disease Control said cocaine-involved overdose death rates decreased from 2006-2012, but began increasing again in 2012. They account for about one in every five drug overdose deaths. In 2017, the most recent year available, the CDC said 14,000 Americans died from a drug overdose involving cocaine, with the Northeast having the highest rate.
The pandemic has made drug addiction problems worse, Brown said, because substance use is a way people cope with stress. Also, the population that uses illegal drugs is generally more vulnerable and treatment programs have scaled back, either because of restrictions on in-person gatherings or because their budgets have been cut, he said.
“It’s like the perfect storm of what you would not want to see happening during a pandemic,” Brown said. “It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the field that overdoses are up.”
Male said he couldn’t say whether Rotterdam is seeing more drug activity or more overdoses because of the pandemic. In general, he said, the Police Department sees dozens of non-fatal overdoses throughout the year, and about a dozen fatal overdoses per year. “I can’t really say it’s been more than in the past,” he said.
The public health alert urged people who are ready to seek help from any of a number of local treatment agencies.
In addition to the Ellis Medicine emergency room on Nott Street, drug users who are ready to seek help can simply come to the Schenectady police station on Liberty Street to be connected with services under the Schenectady Cares program.
Ellis also operates The Living Room at the State Street Health Center, where people can seek mental health assistance without going to the emergency room.
Other addiction service providers being recommended include Conifer Park in Glenville, New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady, Catholic Charities/Project Safe Point, and Hometown Health Schenectady.
Combs, at New Choices, said dangerously adulterated cocaine is something her agency has been aware of for quite some time.
“Over last year it has become a little more common,” she said. “It’s definitely a concern.”
As a private non-profit service provider, Combs said New Choices has experienced state contract cuts, but she believes the agency has adjusted well, holding group meetings on Zoom. In-person assessments were suspended when the pandemic first struck last spring, but have since been resumed. The agency also offers a Zoom peer support program for those in recovery three days a week.
Combs said the pandemic has definitely made drug problems worse. “People feel isolated, anxious,” she said. “There’s lots of anxiety.”