PENN YAN —The COVID-19 shutdown dominates headlines around the world with the impact on healthcare services as well as on the global, national, regional, local, and personal economies. At the same time, social media is filled with parents’ and teachers’ coping methods, humorous photos, and games to pass the time in isolation. But that isolation can become a deepening pit of despair for drug users and addicts in recovery — and combined with what may be a particularly lethal batch of opioids in circulation, that despair can be deadly.
At 3:14 p.m. April 9, Penn Yan Police responded to a residence in the village for a report of a 26-year-old man who was reported not breathing nor conscious and possibly having a seizure.
On arrival, police noted the signs of an opiate or opioid overdose. They began CPR and administered Narcan, the nasal opioid antidote that restores the body’s impulse to breathe. The Penn Yan Volunteer Ambulance Corps also responded, intubated the man, and continued their efforts to revive him for approximately a half hour until it became apparent he was deceased.
Examining the scene, police found baggies of suspected fentanyl/heroin in the victim’s pockets along with a straw. They also found numerous other baggies containing suspected heroin/fentanyl in the man’s vehicle, along with hypodermic needles. The officers stood by with family members until the coroner and a local funeral home responded. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene and was taken to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hospital for an autopsy to be performed.
This was the second suspected fatal drug overdose in Penn Yan in just 10 days. March 31, PYPD responded to a 21-year-old woman who was unconscious who also appeared to have overdosed on opioids. They administered Naloxone and began CPR, but the woman could not be revived and was declared dead at Soldiers & Sailors. Just as in the case 10 days later, Police found five small zip-seal baggies containing suspected heroin/fentanyl along with a straw. The investigation of where the two victims, who are believed to be connected, obtained the drugs is ongoing. Police believe there may be a link in the drugs used as similar colored micro zip lock baggies were found at both scenes.
The press release by PYPD and its circulation on social media as a warning to other users and their families, garnered some criticism from those who accused the police of thoughtlessness for the families’ grief.
Penn Yan Police Chief Thomas Dunham replies, “I want to let you and everyone know that we do take family and loved ones into account every time we post anything like this. Unfortunately PYPD has had to tell far too many parents their child or loved one is dead. Law enforcement are often the ones on scene providing CPR and administering Narcan and having a person die in their arms. So please, trust me when I tell you, law enforcement is not numb to this. However, if there is a batch of drugs going around that can kill other people, we need to let people know and hopefully prevent people from using this. I am sorry if this offends anyone as it is not our intent.”
Dunham says the supply of heroin/fentanyl in the area is brought in via Rochester, and the drug trade in the region is dominated by the Sinaloa Drug Cartel. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Sinaloa Cartel, the most notorious of Mexico’s crime syndicates, maintains the most significant presence in the U.S., dominant along the West Coast, through the Midwest, and into the Northeast.
U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. announced Monday that a major dealer was arrested in Buffalo, one of the major supply hubs in New York. The man was charged with possession with intent to distribute one kilogram (2.2 lbs.) or more of heroin/fentanyl. The charge carries a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years in prison, a maximum of life, and a $10,000,000 fine.
“It’s unconscionable that drug traffickers would continue to distribute their deadly poison in our communities in the midst of a public health crisis,” says Kevin Kelly, Special Agent-in-Charge for Homeland Security Investigations.
“Lately, with the pandemic, we have heard a great deal about mortality rates,” said Kennedy, highlighting the deadly nature of the current drugs in circulation. “Since March 1 in Erie County, we have had 110 documented drug overdoses which have resulted in the deaths of 36 individuals — for a death rate of 33% of all individuals who have overdosed in Erie County since March 1. I think we need to consider the role that social isolation coupled with non-stop reporting on the pandemic may have on the feelings of desperation and hopelessness among those struggling with substance abuse.”