Assemblywoman holds hearing to address rise in substance abuse attributed to COVID-19

Photo courtesy of the New York State Assembly Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, chair of the Assembly Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, held a hearing earlier this month with stakeholders and members of the public regarding the recent surge of substance abuse during the pandemic. Those invited to present testimony expressed concern of the rising rates and limited accessibility to treatment at this time.

Accompanying Rosenthal, testimony was heard from the Commissioner of the Office of Addiction Services and Supports Arlene Gonzáles-Sánchez; Executive Director of the NYS Conference of Local Mental Hygiene Directors Kelly Hansen; President of the Coalition of Medication Assisted Treatment Providers and Advocates Allegra Schorr; Executive Director of NYS Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare Lauri Cole, the NY Deputy State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance Melissa Moore, and many others.Addiction and overdose rates have skyrocketed in some counties, with a 41 percent increase in overdoses in Rensselaer County compared to their 2019 rates. 

Ulster County is currently in a state of emergency due to an increase in fentanyl deaths, with overdose death numbers tripling amid the pandemic.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 40 percent of adults are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues or both. Specifically, people of color, young people, low-income people and essential workers make up a large part of the population for communities in crisis.

The New York State Department of Health, the agency that collects data and reports overdoses, declined the invitation to appear at the hearing and did not send testimony to share with the participants.

“New York State was already in the midst of an addiction and overdose crisis. COVID-19 made it worse, particularly for communities of color, low-income individuals and essential workers, who continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Rosenthal said. 

“Addiction treatment providers have been starved for resources for years. COVID-19 has made it impossible for these providers to meet the increased need for supportive services. We’re facing colliding crises and the State’s clear failure to prioritize addiction prevention will be measured in lives lost.”

While problems with the reporting of overdoses and addictions continue, the panels also disclosed that treatment providers were not given personal protective equipment consistently throughout the pandemic. It seems that treatment providers were not classified as “essential,” leaving people with substance abuse issues or other mental health crises with no place to receive assistance.

Executive Director of the New York Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers, John Coppola, says the pandemic has shown the condition of our country’s healthcare delivery systems for overall public health, their primary care and other mental health services.

“Going forward, behavioral health must be viewed and treated as an essential health service with access to the same resources and support afforded to other sectors of the healthcare field,” Coppola said. “Our hope is that this hearing spurs immediate action to support this — not make cuts to — addiction services, to pass important legislation, and most importantly, provide assistance to vulnerable New Yorkers and their families who need help now.”