Overdose rescue kit (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)
The city of Rochester is not immune to our country’s overdose crisis. In 2020, the most recent year we have data from, we lost over 230 people to preventable overdoses in our city, and preliminary data points to that only increasing in 2021. Each person we are losing sends a shockwave through our communities and families, and we cannot give in to the idea that this epidemic is normal or unpreventable.
The reality is, every overdose death is preventable. New York is making history and proving there is a solution that will keep our loved ones alive, and that solution is Overdose Prevention Centers (OPCs).
Right now, New York City is leading the charge on curbing these deaths with the launch of two OPCs in areas of the city hit hard by the overdose crisis. In just two months, well over 100 lives have been saved through intervening in overdoses that could have otherwise been fatal.
It’s not hard to imagine the people we could help and lives we could save in Rochester if we also had OPCs. In truth, we don’t have to imagine — there is legislation on the table right now to authorize these sites to open across the state.
The Safer Consumption Services Act (SCSA), sponsored by my colleagues Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, is a concrete step we can take to curbing the overdose crisis in New York. It would authorize local organizations that already serve our communities to add this lifesaving service to their existing programming.
If the lives saved at New York City’s two initial sites isn’t evidence enough, OPCs have been successful for over 35 years with over 120 centers around the world. And the best news: not a single person has died of an overdose on their watch.
The benefits of this legislation stretch much farther than ending the overdose crisis we have on our hands. OPCs create spaces where health-care providers can connect and build trust with people who use, and connect them with public health tools to keep them, and the communities they belong to, safe and alive. In addition to saving over a hundred lives, the OPCs in New York City have provided wraparound services to hundreds of community members. Hepatitis C testing, sterile syringe exchange, and mental health counseling—all of which can help get people into long-term substance use treatment if that’s what they want—are also offered to participants at OPCs.
OPCs are also a critical tool in preventing the spread of HIV, where rates of transmission have led to a cluster of HIV cases in Monroe County. In 2020, more than 50 people were diagnosed with HIV–a number that has likely risen–as a direct result of the years of underfunding of harm reduction services before and during the pandemic. It’s my responsibility to the people of Rochester to course-correct and do everything in my power to prevent more harm from being done.
The numbers speak for themselves, but unfortunately, the opposition speaks loudly. Those with a political agenda lean on tired, dangerous, and false narratives that any harm reduction tool will enable drug use. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Like so many harm reduction strategies already widely used in New York, spaces dedicated to keeping people alive will not encourage more drug use, but will keep all of the community safe, and provide people with the services that they need. OPCs will bring our loved ones out of the shadows and away from public use and into the care of medical professionals.
The state of New York is in the midst of a watershed moment. We can either choose to meet the overdose crisis with proven solutions and compassion, or we can continue with the same failed approaches that criminalize people who use drugs without offering any real help. I refuse to accept that the way things have been done is the only way they can be.
We have the answers in front of us, we have the care providers who are willing to step up, and we have the need in our community. It’s time for overdose prevention centers to become a reality across the state, and with the Safer Consumption Services Act, I hope to see as many lives saved in Rochester as in New York City. It’s time to get it done.
Demond Meeks serves as the Assembly member for District 137 and is a native of Rochester. On Twitter @DemondLMeeks.