Editor’s Note: Six years ago, in September and October 2017, The Current published a four-part special report called Fighting Back: The Opioid Crisis. The problem has not gone away. Here we revisit some of the issues from the 2017 series.
Yvonne Bateman used to meet her son, Jonathan, after he finished working out at a gym near the recovery house in Poughkeepsie where he stayed until spring 2022.
They would stroll across the nearby Walkway over the Hudson, talking “about everything — about his life and what he’s been through,” she said.
Jonathan Bateman’s last journey began in a detoxification unit at Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital in Poughkeepsie, followed by treatment at St. Christopher’s Inn in Garrison and six months at the recovery house before he graduated in April 2022 and moved into his father’s house.
The John Jay High School alumnus had been “extremely happy” to return home and had more than a year of sobriety when he used the fentanyl-laced cocaine that killed him on Oct. 8, 2022, at age 30, said his mother, who lives in Fishkill.
“He was a very sensitive young man, but very caring, loving and funny — just liked to have fun, the best worker you could ever have and very loyal to his friends,” said Bateman. “His word was his bond.”
Her son became another victim of a drug crisis in which overdose deaths, after a downturn in 2019, began worsening in 2020. That year, the pandemic temporarily halted new admissions to treatment programs and prevented 12-step support groups from meeting in person.
Three years later, fatalities from opioid overdoses have been relatively stable in Putnam County but are at record levels nationwide and in Dutchess County and New York state.
Dutchess ended 2022 with the second-highest rate of overdose deaths among counties outside New York City. With 65 deaths in the first half of this year, the county is on pace to exceed last year’s total. Twenty-three of those people have died in the City of Poughkeepsie and 20 in southwest Dutchess, which includes Beacon.
The opponent is formidable: Illegal fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin, has gone from a cutting agent for heroin and other narcotics to the drug of choice for many users. Jonathan Bateman’s death highlights the increasing presence of fentanyl in cocaine, and the drug is also used to make pills that look like oxycodone and other prescription medications.
Not only does fentanyl raise the risk of overdosing, the drug is less responsive to naloxone, the overdose-reversal medicine that has become a primary strategy for keeping people alive.
Dealers are also peddling a new concoction: fentanyl combined with an animal tranquilizer called xylazine, also known as “tranq dope,” that does not respond to naloxone because it is not an opioid. Heavy use causes open sores.
“The word I would use for the opioid epidemic is ‘relentless,’” said Jean-Marie Niebuhr, who directs community services for the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health. “Drugs are toxic in general, but right now they’re so incredibly dangerous.”
Fentanyl’s grip spreads
Terasina Hanna knows the toll.
Hanna, who is eight years sober, is the program manager for the Walter Hoving Home, a decades-old Christian-based treatment program for women with a facility in Garrison. After graduating from Walter Hoving’s program in Pasadena, California, she relocated east in 2017 to work for the organization.
“Since I’ve been here at least 15 women that have left and been struggling their whole lives trying to get sober have unfortunately overdosed,” she said. “And the impact on the family is overwhelming.”
Fentanyl is now the primary drug being sold in the illegal opioid market, said Brandon del Pozo. The former Burlington, Vermont, police chief studies addiction as an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, and sits on the board of the Philipstown Behavioral Health Hub in Cold Spring.
Less than a third of overdose deaths in 2015 involved a synthetic opioid such as fentanyl, but nearly 92 percent did in 2022. Five years ago, medical examiners ruled heroin the culprit in 45 percent of overdoses in Dutchess and 39 percent in Putnam. Last year, heroin accounted for just 9 percent of the fatalities in Dutchess and 10 percent in Putnam.
“Anytime someone is taking an illicit opioid, whether it’s a pill or powder, or they’re injecting it or smoking it, the presumption is that that person is taking fentanyl,” said del Pozo. “Anything else is an exception.”
At St. Christopher’s Inn, the summer months traditionally have brought fewer people into treatment, but “now, because of the opioid epidemic, it doesn’t matter,” said James Schiller, its executive director.
Kevin Douglas, the program’s director of counseling and shelter services, said that some of the program’s clients were injecting “straight fentanyl” before seeking treatment. He recalled someone who awoke from an overdose-induced coma to see his grandmother and other family members in his hospital room.
Despite being surrounded by supportive relatives, “He was like, ‘I’ve got to get back and get more,’” said Douglas. “To be in that place, where all I can think about after surviving is to find the same stuff because it’s so amazing — it’s scary.”
The scale of the deaths and the imperative to keep people alive has led to a greater embrace of “harm reduction,” a constellation of responses that includes needle exchanges, naloxone, free strips that can be used to test drugs for fentanyl and xylazine, and addiction medications such as buprenorphine and methadone.
The medications prevent the debilitating withdrawal symptoms — muscle and stomach pains, nausea, vomiting — that opioid abusers can only cure by using more drugs.
One of the goals identified by the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports is to promote access to methadone and Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, and to make more people aware of them as a treatment option.
Clinics dispensing methadone have long-faced obstacles to opening when local residents raise fears of addicts roaming their streets and drawing crime. Suboxone, which reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms, can be prescribed by doctors, something most drug users and family members do not realize, said del Pozo.
“When it comes to reducing overdose mortality, and keeping people housed and employed, and out of the emergency department, Suboxone and methadone are by far the two most effective approaches,” said del Pozo.
Telling their stories
The day before Jonathan Bateman died, his mother learned how to administer naloxone during one of the many free training sessions held locally and statewide. She intended to deliver to her ex-husband’s house the naloxone kit she received for completing the training, which took place at Libby Funeral Home in Beacon.
Instead, eight days later, Libby hosted Jonathan Bateman’s funeral. A laminated card from the service is attached to a wall in Bateman’s living room. Surrounding it are dozens of pictures with Jonathan — posing with a horse, straddling a motorcycle, sitting in the cab of a UPS truck, holding an aluminum baseball bat aloft while fixed in a batting stance.
Bateman wants to use her story to help others. “I’m not ashamed of my son,” she said. “He was one of the most beautiful, wonderful humans, and people need to know that these are the kinds of people who are being affected.”
Hanna, who started using drugs at age 11, is open about her addiction to PCP and methamphetamines, which spanned more than 20 years and left her “hopeless” and “never thinking that it will ever stop.”
Where to Find Help
Treatment and support
New York Office of Addiction Services and Supports
877-846-7369 | oasas.ny.gov
Arms Acres (Carmel)
845-225-3400 | armsacres.com
Center for Recovery (Newburgh)
845-220-2146 | cfr.care
845-225-2700 | covecarecenter.org
Philipstown Behavioral Health Hub (Cold Spring)
845-809-5050 | philipstownhub.org
St. Christopher’s Inn (Garrison)
845-335-1022 | stchristophersinn-graymoor.org
Walter Hoving Home (Garrison)
845-274-3812 | hovinghome.org
Naloxone and test strips
Nasal naloxone (Narcan) is available at drugstores over the counter.
Visit oasas.ny.gov to order free nasal or intramuscular naloxone kits (two doses per order) and free fentanyl/xylazine test strips (100 per pack).
Residents with prescription-drug coverage are eligible for up to $40 in co-pay assistance for naloxone.
Prevention and education
Prevention Council of Putnam
845-225-4646 | preventioncouncilputnam.org
Dutchess Council on Addiction Prevention and Education
845-765-8310 | capedc.org
Dutchess and Putnam residents can text EndODNY to 55753 to receive messages with information about opioid use, overdoses and treatment, as well as emergency alerts during spikes in local cases.
The losses piled up — family, children, freedom, dignity. She almost lost her life to an overdose that caused her heart to stop. “I wanted to stop, but I just couldn’t,” she said.
Her life is so different now from the one led by the version of herself who stole cars and IDs to support a drug habit, said Hanna. To prevent forgetting, she sometimes pulls out the mugshots taken when corrections officers booked her into the Los Angeles County Jail after repeated arrests.
Inside the eyes of that woman, she sees “death,” said Hanna, who requested copies of the mugshots from the jail. “They remind me of how life can be if I ever go back.”