Ground Zero: Health care professionals scramble to keep up with drug epidemic

As the eyes of the nation turn to a troubling wave of opioid addiction in rural and suburban communities, residents of the South Bronx are asking what took them so long to realize that there’s a crisis going on.

On the one hand, residents here have long complained about sharing their streets with drug users who frequent the profusion of methadone clinics and “transitional” apartments in the neighborhood. They argue that the area stretching from the Grand Concourse east to Hunts Point has far more than its fair share of social services for the city’s most transient.

On the other hand, social service providers often argue back that many of the South Bronx’s drug users are “your neighbors and family members,” and that residents have a moral obligation to house, feed and otherwise serve this vulnerable population.

At a Feb. 1 press conference at Lincoln Hospital  to announce the rollout of a new program to train the public to use Naloxone, the antidote for drug overdoses, Lincoln’s CEO Milton Nunez declared that “this neighborhood is Ground Zero in this epidemic. We feel a special responsibility to tackle this problem.”

One in five patients admitted to Lincoln reports having a substance or alcohol addiction, according to the health department. Of the 11 hospitals in the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp., only Bellevue in Brooklyn comes anywhere close to that number.

Lincoln’s Chief Medical Officer Bala Kanna, who has been practicing medicine at the hospital for 24 year, calls the problem a “broader public health issue.” If drug addiction in the neighborhood could be easily traced to just one or two root problems, “we would have solved it a long time ago.”

For one thing, Kanna said, physicians are more aware than ever before of the dangers of prescription drugs, and are more cautious about prescribing them, which health officials hope will make a dent in the problem. But health care professionals can only do so much in trying to stem the tide, he cautioned. “The community has to be engaged.”

In November and December 2017, The Mott Haven Herald staff took to the streets of the neighborhood to talk to users and treatment providers, police officers and ordinary residents to take a closer look at the disparate elements that make up this multi-faceted social problem as it confronts the South Bronx.

Read our special series Opioid Addiction: Local Face on a National Crisis