The percentage of Blacks and Hispanics who died from heroin and/or fentanyl in 2019 increased from the previous year, while deaths among Caucasians decreased.
The percentage of deaths from those substances among Blacks went from 13.3% of the total to 21%. Among Latinos, the percentage went from 7.7% to 15.5%.
The percentage of deaths among Caucasians dropped from 82.1% to 68%.
“It says to me as, with all these conversations we’re having about inequities, this is a perfect example of an invisible population that, to be blunt, nobody seemingly gives a damn,” said Rudy Rivera, chief executive officer of the Father Tracy Advocacy Center on North Clinton Avenue. “Whoever thought that because you have this reduction in the white community, that that story was our story. It’s never been our story. That’s what upsets me.”
Dr. Linda Clark, president of the Black Physicians Network, said the focus of the opioid epidemic advocacy was on whites “We keep forgetting about the issue in our Black community.”
Overall, Monroe County had 181 deaths from heroin/morphine and/or fentanyl and its analogs. The total was 7% lower than 2018, when 195 people died.
These official statistics from 2019 were released Sept. 25 by the Office of the Monroe County Medical Examiner. They reflect deaths in Monroe County where the cause specifically was attributed to the substances involved. The data do not include deaths where the substances were present but the cause of death was a traumatic injury such as a fatal crash while the driver was under the influence.
Almost half of individuals who died were white males. Fatal overdoses among women decreased from 30.3% in 2018 to 27.1% last year. The percentage of women of color who sustained a fatal overdose was not provided.
Opioid misuse was deemed a public health crisis as the death toll increased. In 2017, Monroe County had 220 heroin/fentanyl-related overdose deaths. The number of deaths has decreased each of the past two years, but the reductions may not be across the board.
“I have to ask the treatment community, are you aware of this?” Rivera said. “If you are aware of it, what exactly are you doing? It’s a microcosm of the macrocosm of a system that does not address the needs of Black and brown people, and we somehow do not make note of that.”
Rivera said despite the label of a public health crisis, opioid addiction has not gotten the attention from the Monroe County Department of Public Health that it deserves. “Whether you like it or not, these are human beings. I would argue that each one of those in some way or other was lost, and we were just not able to find them. And that is unacceptable.”
Clark said heroin use was considered a minority issue in the 1970s when it was criminalized.
“We know that story,” she said. “Now that it’s white and not criminalized and medicalized and we focused so much on making it work for one segment of the population, I think we’ve ignored some of our other segments of the population in terms of providing culturally relevant care.”
Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, whose campaign included pledges to address the opioid situation, has been working to enhance addiction services. On Sept. 28, he named Tisha Smith as the county’s first director of Addiction Services. She will oversee the Monroe County Improving Addiction Coordination Team, which will be part of the county health department. Smith’s role is to coordinate the different multi-discipline treatment and prevention efforts already underway and to publicize the services available to individuals and families affected by addiction.
Smith had been director of Inmate Drug and Alcohol Programs for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. She also served as addiction therapist supervisor at Rochester Regional Health’s Unity Hospital.
A county spokeswoman said Smith was getting acclimated to her new role and was not immediately available for an interview.
Clark, who specializes in occupational medicine and whose practice includes addiction medicine, said that health care can’t rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Whereas we maybe found some things that worked very well in portions of the white community, we may not have been paying that same attention to the Black and Latino communities.”
She said that economic factors may play a role in addiction and that a spiritual approach ought to be considered when helping Black people who are living with addiction.
“We’ve always known that the head is not separate from the body. We’ve also known that spiritual issues impact our physical health. But what seems to matter is what gets reimbursed as opposed to what really works. Until we start thinking differently, we are going to get the same terrible results.”