ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — After an alarming number of overdose deaths across the nation this year, local leaders are demanding action. 

Last year was one of the deadliest years for overdoses in the state of New York. According to CDC data, more than 5,100 New Yorkers died from preventable overdoses in 2020. 

“In New York State last year, we saw over a 29% increase in opioid deaths. This is unacceptable,” Ryan Thoresen Carson, the Executive Director of No OD NY. 

Thoresen Carson lost his best friend and family members to the opioid epidemic. He’s now walking hundreds of miles across the state, joining local leaders in their call for more to be done to help fight the crisis. 

On Monday, Thoresen Carson joined numerous VOCAL-NY leaders in Rochester to push for change. Assemblymember Demond Meeks (NY-137), Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, and a representative from Assemblymember Harry Bronson’s (NY-138) office were all in attendance. 

“We are calling on the governor to sign the overdose prevention package to remove barriers to life-saving treatment under medicaid and expand access to treatment to jails and prisons and to decriminalize and expand access to syringes,” Meeks announced. 

Officials also asked for Governor Cuomo to declare a state of emergency on the opioid epidemic so more funding can go towards treatment and prevention. Some leaders also want the state to start a pilot program for overdose prevention centers. 

“These are places where people can go and use drugs under supervision. That’s not the only thing that they are, if someone were to OD, they would be revived, but on top of that, they can also seek treatment,” Thoresen Carson said. “They can seek treatment in the form of rehabilitation, they can seek treatment in the form of other life-saving care, they can find temporary housing at these facilities.”

Thoresen Carson says currently Rhode Island is the only state that has introduced a pilot program for these centers, but he believes every major city should have them.  

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart was among the leaders at Monday’s gathering. She said an important step is for people to start seeing those who are addicted as human beings. 

“We dehumanize addiction, we dehumanize people who are addicted. We blame people who use opioids and their choices. We like to say things like, ‘they committed a crime or they made their choice,’ but we don’t say that about people addicted to alcohol or addicted to tobacco. We’ve decided that people who use this class of substances, because it’s illegal, deserve what they get.”

Barnhart says harm reduction services play an important role in saving lives. 

“We need options for safe needles and safe disposal. We need treatment for everyone, and we need to stop pretending that harm reduction means 100% success and perfection. Harm reduction recognizes that this is hard,” Barnhart said. “Harm reduction means we aren’t going to let people die when they don’t have to.”

Trillium Health has played a big role in helping those impacted by overdoses. The organization has provided harm reduction services since 1994. 

“Our services are positioned at the beginning of the treatment continuum and throughout that treatment continuum. We wholly accept people who are using drugs as humans. Humans first,” said Julie Ritzler-Shelling, the Director of Harm Reduction Services with Trillium Health.

Trillium Health says they were the first in the area to provide free narcan training to community members, something they have done a lot this year.

“During the first six months of 2021, we have trained over 1,300 individuals in how to recognize and respond to an overdose and distributed over 1,350 Narcan kits,” Ritzler-Shelling said. “Our definition of success now has become that our clients and patients live to see another day. We need to do better. We must do better.”

Community leaders said Monday they want the community to come together on August 31st, which is International Overdose Awareness Day, for a day of action.

The pandemic’s toll on overdoses has been seen across the country, as people have faced economic uncertainty and social isolation. According to data from the CDC, 93,000 people died of drug overdose in the U.S. last year, a 30% increase from 2019. 

New York’s state legislature closed the session by passing three overdose prevention bills: Medication-Assisted Treatment in Prison and Jails, Syringe Decriminalization and Expansion, and Removing Prior Authorization for Medication-Assisted Treatment for people enrolled in Medicaid.