NEW YORK — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions drove home the severity of the national health emergency of opioid addiction in a visit to JFK Airport Friday.
It was intended to draw attention to the problem of illegal shipments of addictive and dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl and other opioids. Sessions's official speech highlighted the danger and devastation, but it's felt directly in homes and neighborhoods across the New York metropolitan area.
"I know more than 30 people personally who've died," said Rob Stroh, a Staten Island resident.
"I know about six people that died last month in about a week's span from opioid addiction," said his friend, Nicholas Dicristina.
Dicristina was cutting Stroh's hair in Next Generation Barbershop in the Tottenville neighborhood of Staten Island. Dicristina founded the shop as part of his recovery from an opioid addiction that almost killed him. Stroh also almost perished, but instead, his haircut and shave on Friday afternoon are for his wedding on Saturday.
"How they're cracking down on the importation of the drugs," said Stroh, "I think that's very good."
His praise was echoed in the official comments of the attorney general. He gave kudos to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at JFK, who have intercepted shipments of illegal drugs, including more than 100 packages of fentanyl, in the last year.
Sessions singled out one officer in particular.
“Officer Thomas Pagano,” the attorney general said, pointing. “There he is.”
“He’s seized more than 30 shipments of fentanyl” by himself, said Sessions.
Pagano responded humbly, citing his whole
team of officers who are based out of the U.S. Mail facility at JFK Airport.
"The more you seek, the more you're going to find," Pagano said, adding that part of the reason that he and his colleagues are so passionate about their jobs is that they can identify with people who've been affected by the opioid epidemic.
"We all know somebody who knows somebody," said Pagano, "who's been directly affected by an overdose."
Those few degrees of separation are further reflected in activity at drug treatment centers, like the ones at Northwell Health Staten Island University Medical Center.
"From 2016," said Dr. Elina Drits, "we've had a 66 percent increase in unintentional overdoses in Staten Island."
"There's definitely a need for treatment," Dr. Drits told PIX11 News.
Among the patients that her program has helped are Rob Stroh and Nicholas Dicristina.
"They need to have more treatment programs" like those in which he's participated so far, Dicristina said. "They need more facilities and need people to go to more 12 step programs, like I do," he said.
Adding more programs and facilities costs money, clearly. However, the main criticism of Pres. Donald Trump's national emergency declaration is that it's funded mostly by the government reapportioning monies from other, existing programs, rather than creating large, new appropriations to fund the fight to overcome the crisis.
That criticism has been voiced from such diverse sources as Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, one of the states most strongly affected by the opioid epidemic.
PIX11 News had indicated an interest, before Attorney General Sessions's speech, in asking him to address the criticisms. However, Sessions did not take any questions.