ITHACA, N.Y. — Since my last op-ed about safer consumption spaces in December, the Tompkins County Health Department announced that more people died of fatal overdose in 2017 than any year prior. Inaction by our politicians at the state level means people are continuing to die preventable deaths. Governor Cuomo and New York State Health Department Commissioner Zucker have the power to change this and must take action to support consumption spaces immediately.
As a physician who provides medication assisted treatment for people with opiate use disorders, the status quo is heartbreaking to me. My patients are among those most at risk of preventable death. As a lifelong Ithacan, family physician, and mother of two children ages 2 and 5, I am committed to smart health policies and good science. There is no controversy in the professional literature: safer consumption spaces save lives, improve public order, reduce the spread of blood borne illness, and save money.
Safer consumption spaces have existed for almost 40 years on three continents. In that time, zero people have died. In contrast, last year 22 of our neighbors, friends, and family members died of preventable fatal overdose here in Tompkins.
Still, there is reason for hope. Since my last op-ed, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio joined our own Mayor Svante Myrick in calling for safer consumption spaces. And it’s not just Mayor de Blasio who has noticed the great work in our town; Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has paid attention too. For Ithaca’s safer consumption space proposal, Bloomberg Philanthropies selected Ithaca as one of 35 “Champion
Cities” from a field of 350 applicants in its Mayors’ Challenge. The contest recognized municipal policy proposals for innovation, high impact potential, and scalability to other jurisdictions.
But we have a tragic history of division in New York State between Upstate and Downstate public health policy. New York State failed to include Upstate in its initial public health response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. It was a full decade after the state authorized downstate syringe exchanges in 1992 before Ithaca was able to open its own syringe exchange. That delay killed people.
In fact, that delay continues to kill people in our community today. The dedicated investment in downstate areas of New York has contributed to the lack of health infrastructure, and this is part of the deadly story of the current Upstate overdose crisis. In fact, the overdose rates in the Southern Tier all surpass that of Downstate regions. Since 2006, suburban counties experienced a 303 percent increase in the opioid overdose death rate, and a 1,158 percent increase in heroin-related deaths. In Tompkins County, our fatal overdose rate has increased by 1000% in the last ten years.
The mistakes of the HIV/AIDS crisis must not be repeated. If Governor Cuomo and New York Health Commissioner Zucker fail to act to support these programs here in Ithaca, not just in New York City, and if they fail to do so immediately, their constituents will die entirely preventable deaths.
The eyes of history are on us. Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Zucker must join the medical professionals and take action immediately to support safer consumption spaces, statewide. I ask them to formally approve the waiting pilot of Supervised Consumption Spaces in Ithaca and New York City. Allow us to do this life-saving work!