SCHENECTADY — Schenectady County has been designated a federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a move expected to bring greater resources to fight drug sales here and treat drug overdoses.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had called for the county’s inclusion after a spate of four overdose deaths in Schenectady in a single week in June.
The White House announced Wednesday that Schenectady County would be one of six newly designated HIDTA counties nationwide. It is now part of the New York/New Jersey HIDTA; Albany County is the only other designated county in this part of the state.
“Schenectady County and the Capital Region has been devastated by back-to-back record years of opioid deaths and a deadly wave of overdoses fueled by the surge in drug trafficking and fentanyl on our streets,” Schumer said in a news release Thursday.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which has more than 1,500 agents assigned to the HIDTA program, said it is designed for areas that are a significant center of illegal drug production, manufacturing, importation or distribution that is having a significant harmful impact.
Schumer said the designation will give Schenectady County increased equipment, technology and federal intelligence resources to combat the opioid crisis, as well as funding for drug use prevention and treatment.
It will fund purchase of equipment such as narcotics analyzers and supplies such as Naloxone kits, which can save the life of an overdose victim and were used more than 250 times by EMS personnel in Schenectady County in 2021, he said.
HIDTA designation will also promote partnerships between public health agencies and law enforcement agencies, to address both sides of the equation at once: supply and demand.
“We are still seeing far too many overdoses,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said Thursday. “The level of potency of some of these drugs have deadly consequences.”
The prevention and treatment aspects of the drug crisis fall more on the county and its partners than on the city, the mayor said, but city police and firefighters are often the point of first contact with drug abusers and overdose victims.
The Schenectady Police Department follows the principles of PAARI — Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative — that began in 2015 in Gloucester, Mass., and rapidly spread to hundreds of other departments in 34 states. It seeks to reframe drug abuse as a disease rather than a crime, and diverts drug users to treatment rather than jail.
In July 2019, Schenectady police started Schenectady Cares, through which anyone with substance abuse problems could walk into the department and get help. In March 2022, the department launched the second phase of that program, through which it began to connect overdose victims with partner agencies such as New Choices Recovery Center and Catholic Charities.
The Schenectady Fire Department is often on the scene of an overdose before the police are.
“A lot of times, we’re the first contact with the people who have a problem,” said Chief Donald Mareno.
The department may go a few days without an overdose call, or it may get several on a single shift, he said. The controlling factor seems to be the purity or strength of whatever batch of drugs is on that street that week, he added.
“The drug issue is nothing new, we’ve been dealing with it for as long as I’ve been on the job, which is 30 years,” he said. “It is more intensified now than it has been.”
Medical calls, not fires and car crashes, make up the majority of the department’s work.
“Sometimes the call may come in as an overdose,” Mareno said, “and sometimes the call is for a person down. We don’t know what the cause is — an overdose, a diabetic issue, trauma.”
The department is prepared for all of the above and more — every member is a paramedic as well as a firefighter, giving the department a higher medical capability than most.
“We’re the only department in the area that can put 20 paramedics on the scene within minutes,” Mareno said.
But if the patient can’t talk and there’s no telltale such as a hypodermic needle by their side, the paramedics need to figure out what happened by looking for more subtle clues or questioning any bystanders.
“We preach to our people: Head on a swivel, take everything in so you can make the best decisions possible,” Mareno said.
If it’s confirmed to be a drug overdose, the response may range from CPR to Naloxone to oxygen and fluids, depending how poorly the victim is doing, and which vital signs are tanking.
Naloxone isn’t for every overdose situation, Mareno said, it’s typically used when the patient’s breathing is slowing to a dangerous rate.
But used in a timely manner, it can make the difference between life and death.
Drug overdose deaths statewide increased 37% from 3,617 in 2019 to 4,965 in 2020, the state Department of Health reported earlier this year.
Opioids accounted for the bulk of these deaths — rising 44% over the single year, from 2,939 to 4,233.
Nearly five times as many deaths were blamed on opioid pain relievers in 2020 than on heroin. Fentanyl, specifically, is driving that trend.
Schenectady County saw 28 opioid-related deaths in 2020. Preliminary data for the first nine months of 2021 show 31 deaths.
In Schumer’s news release, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert M. Carney thanked the senator for the HIDTA designation. “I also want to acknowledge the efforts of Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Assini, who spearheaded our application and provided the justification for our inclusion,” he said.
“Through this designation, Schenectady County will receive critical resources and support to combat major drug trafficking organizations operating in the county, along with the violence associated with such illegal activity.”