As opioid crisis continues, NY group works on harm reduction to prevent overdoses

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LONG ISLAND — Frank Zdenek’s 11-year heroin addiction has taken its toll on his body, and his family in Suffolk County, Long Island.

“I’ve overdosed about eight times already. My mom’s sick to her stomach. She’s sad, depressed,” said Zdenek’s.

We met Zdenek on a recent chilly morning in the South Bronx — a long way from the temptation he says is lurking in the suburban shadows of his native town of Selden.

Selden and the Bronx – two vastly different communities – both offer a terrifying abundance of heroin, laced with the powerful opiate, Fentanyl.

But it is here, in the Zdenek and other heroin users now routinely seek help from several, non-profit organizations - including the Corner Project where Kailin See is the team leader.

At their makeshift office, Corner Project is actually handing out fentanyl testing strips and kits containing the overdose reversal drug, Narcan.

The concern?

Fentanyl can be fifty to one-hundred times stronger than morphine. In fact, health officials say last year, Fentanyl was involved in nearly half of the city’s heroin overdoses. Even more troubling, last year the Bronx had the city’s largest number of overdose deaths. More than 300 people died.

Some critics say this kind of aggressive outreach only keeps a user on heroin and prolongs their addiction, but See disagrees.

“Abstinence fails every single time, until the one time that it doesn’t.  Harm reduction is there to catch people, and to connect them to care, and to keep them alive, and to prevent overdose,” said See.

At Corner Project’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Executive Director Liz Evans says that bold approach also includes a reluctant acceptance that Corner Project – a decade old needle exchange program – has also become, for its struggling clients, a safe space to sneak away into a bathroom and shoot up.

“We’re not going to stand by and let people die in bathrooms where they might inject,” said Evans.

Bathrooms here are now equipped with intercoms and help is just a door knock away.

“Linking them to medical care and supports, and really hoping to send the message to people who – while they are still actively using – that they’re lives matter enough, that they should take care of themselves, and that we care about them,” said Evans.

Back on the corner in the South Bronx, 31-year-old heroin user Frank Zdenek admits to using so called “safe shoot up rooms” and being saved - from a fentanyl laced heroin overdose.

But for all of that help, Zdenek admits, kicking his addiction is still a work in progress.

And this crisis is only getting worse. New York City health officials say someone dies of an overdose every seven hours in the city. And they say fentanyl is connected to half of those overdoses.

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