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Recovery advocates install emergency Narcan boxes around Monroe County, ask Hochul to sign state law

An emergency Narcan box is positioned next to the front door of Boost Mobile.
Noelle Evans
An emergency Narcan box is positioned next to the front door of Boost Mobile.

 Opioid addiction recovery advocates are installing their own version of “break glass in case of emergency” at some businesses. 

A Boost Mobile phone store at 570 W. Main St. is the first to set up an emergency box stocked with Narcan, a nasal spray medicine used to reverse an opioid overdose. 

“We oftentimes see people shooting up outside,” said store owner Marcus Williams, who is also running for a Rochester City Council seat in November. “I saw someone a couple weeks ago almost overdose outside. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do anything at the time.” 

Advocacy groups Gates to Recovery and Mission Recovery and Hope are leading the initiative, which will target certain areas that have been the sites of previous overdose fatalities. According to Gates Police Chief Jim VanBrederode, in his jurisdiction, that often means hotels and convenience store parking lots.

“This is just like a fire extinguisher,” VanBrederode said Tuesday. “When the fire starts, you go and get the fire extinguisher. When somebody overdoses, hopefully we’ll have these on a wall where people can see it and find it.”

The Narcan emergency box at Boost Mobile is the first of what recovery advocates hope will be at least 100 such boxes.

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Rob Nettnin, owner of Westside Medical Supply, is among them. On Valentine’s Day in 2020, his son Eric, 31, died of an opioid overdose. 

“The difference between the hospital fentanyl and what you buy on the street is it’s tainted with so much that my kid didn’t have a chance,” Nettnin said. “As soon as he touched that one bag, he was done.”

It takes less than five minutes to learn how to use Narcan, said Carol Michelle Hulsizer, who is an advocate partnering with Gates to Recovery. 

“Take it out of the package, it’s ready to go,” Hulsizer said. “Lots of times (the person who overdosed comes) back in seconds. So it works, it's easy to use and it does no harm.” 

Narcan was used on Eric Nettnin twice during his struggle with addiction, his father said.

His son’s death was one of 238 fatal drug overdoses in Monroe County in 2020. That’s about a 30% increase from 2019. A similar trend was seen around the nation in the last year.

Not far away from the Boost Mobile store, advocates, local residents and state Assembly members gathered in downtown Rochester to shout “not one more,” in honor of New Yorkers who have lost their lives to overdose. 

They are calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign off on a package of bills created to increase access to overdose prevention medication and resources.

The three bills that have been approved by the state Legislature include the decriminalization of syringes, removes prior authorization for medically assisted treatment and ensures that treatment will be offered to incarcerated New Yorkers.

State Assemblymember Sarah Clark said more can be done to address addiction.

“It’s a mental health crisis," Clark said. “If we come at it with support, with love, and with the health care that is needed to make people feel whole again, we can actually make a dent in this.”

Advocates also want approval for a pilot program that would bring five safe injection facilities to areas of frequent drug use, an unfulfilled promise of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Julie Ritzler-Shelling, who works with Trillium Health’s harm reduction services team, said they expect opposition from those who believe the program would enable people to use drugs.

“People don’t start drugs because they see organizations like that in their town. But the opposite happens,” Ritzler-Shelling said. “The health outcomes are greater and more beneficial to the entire community, and there’s no syringe litter in people’s backyards.”

She added that the program would operate similarly to existing needle exchange programs and it would allow harm reduction advocates to meet people where they are in terms of their addiction.

“It's a no-brainer. There are no deaths, there are increased connections to treatment, health care and recovery. The data is incredibly supportive of that mechanism,” Ritzler-Shelling said.

Barbera Rivera lost four close friends to addiction. She said she hopes Hochul will sign the laws to help individuals who are still struggling.

“We need more resources for folks to try to get help when they need it instead of leaving them out on the streets,'' Rivera said.

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.