Tackling the opioid epidemic

Organization aims to curb local drug use, overdoses

A Naloxone Hydrochloride injection, better known as Narcan, reverses a heroin overdose by blocking opioid receptors in the brain. The Levittown Community Action Coalition will hold Narcan seminars for community members.
A Naloxone Hydrochloride injection, better known as Narcan, reverses a heroin overdose by blocking opioid receptors in the brain. The Levittown Community Action Coalition will hold Narcan seminars for community members.
Rebecca Anderson/Herald

In the last two years, Nassau County has seen an uptick in heroin and opioid fatal overdoses. According to the district attorney’s office, there were 146 opioid-related deaths in the county last year, with 43 cases involving heroin, 39, oxycodone and 47, fentanyl. With narcotics pervasive in the streets, local counselors said it’s easy to get these drugs in large quantities cheaply. 

Overdoses and drug-related arrests have increased in the Wantagh-Seaford area, including neighboring communities such as Levittown, Massapequa, East Meadow and Hicksville. Residents have teamed up with local organizations to educate their communities about the opioid epidemic and prevent deaths. 

The Levittown Community Action Coalition was started earlier this year to target drug use in Levittown and bordering hamlets such as Wantagh and Seaford. The group held its first town hall meeting in March, called “Levittown Talks,” and a formal meeting in April. 

The group’s next open meeting will be on Aug. 9 (see box). Leaders said that besides structuring the coalition and developing goals, they will also distribute surveys to attendees to gauge community concerns. 

The coalition was initially founded through the YES Community Counseling Center, an organization that helps struggling addicts and their family members. The nonprofit has outreach centers in North Levittown and Massapequa.

Louise Cassano, second vice president of the Levittown Community Council and a member of the Levittown Chamber of Commerce board of directors, joined the coalition. The Levittown Community Council, comprising residents of Wantagh, Seaford and Levittown, aims to foster pride and unity in the Levittown and Island Trees school districts. 

Cassano said that she was concerned about the rising opioid overdose death toll in Levittown and surrounding areas. She noted that residents of all ages are using opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, among others. 

“It’s important to alert residents of the community to the fact that there is a significant problem in our community,” Cassano said. “The problem is here and now, and it’s not affecting just teens. Families are being destroyed by problems associated with addiction, and too often, the death of a parent who is addicted.”

Currently, the coalition is working on a mapping project. Cassano said that the group hopes to pinpoint local areas of concern. “Many young families are moving into Levittown, and they need to be informed, made aware and become involved in keeping Levittown thriving, safe and strong,” she said. 

Other local organizations, including the Wantagh-Levittown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, have seen the crisis up close. The EMS group was founded in 1956 to help residents in dire situations. The members of the volunteer group are trained in CPR, paramedic care and administering Narcan — an injection that can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose.

Irene Sabatasso, vice president of WLVAC, said that volunteers have responded to more than 25 calls involving opioid overdoses. She said that there has been a spike in the number of overdoses in the last five years — especially during the winter. 

“I feel a moral responsibility to be involved in the discussion regarding the reduction and elimination of opioids from our community,” Sabatasso said. “As an agency that is certified by New York state to train community members in the administration of Narcan, we believe that our experience and insight will assist the YES Community Counseling Center and the coalition in achieving their goal.”

For many users, heroin has been a cheaper alternative to prescription painkillers. In many cases, Sabatasso said, heroin is laced with fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. 

Sabatasso said that WLVAC volunteers in the coalition want people to know that they should call 911 if they suspect someone has overdosed. “You can help save a person’s life,” she explained. “Many times, our ambulance has responded to a difficulty breathing or sick complaint when it is actually an overdose.”

The Levittown School District is also involved with the coalition. The district takes in students from north Wantagh and Seaford.

Dr. Tonie McDonald, Levittown’s superintendent, said that the coalition has developed a presence in the community. She said that it helps educate students and other young people about the dangers of substance abuse.

“In our schools, our social workers arrange assemblies and educational forums that help our students understand the serious risks of substance use and abuse,” McDonald said. “By partnering with [the coalition], our goal is to educate our broader community on those dangers.”

Religious leaders, including those from St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, and elected officials, such as Hempstead Town Councilman Dennis Dunne, are also teaming up with the coalition. McDonald praised the community’s commitment to the cause. 

“As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “In Levittown, we truly take that to heart. We are proud to represent our students, staff and community on the Levittown Community Action Coalition.” 

Wantagh and Seaford residents are welcome to attend next week’s coalition meeting. For more information, call the YES Community Counseling Center at (516) 799-3203.