New OASAS Commissioner: This is the most deadly overdose epidemic we’ve ever experienced

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — As the number of overdose deaths in our community and across the state continues to rise, there is a new Commissioner at the top of the state agency tasked with helping people out of addiction.

News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke sat down with Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, the Commissioner of the Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) for an exclusive interview about her plans to address the crisis.

Dr. Cunningham has been treating people with addictions her entire career. "For over 20 years, I’ve worked in the Bronx in a federally qualified health center so, I come to the field really seeing what the need is,” she says.

Dr. Cunningham believes the state needs to better meet people where they are, not just physically by bringing services to them but also by being there even if the person isn’t ready to commit to treatment. “Recognizing there are ways to help people live healthier lives and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be abstinent, abstinence is part of it but it’s also recognizing there’s a whole continuum of where people are in terms of their substance use,” Dr. Cunningham says.

Supervised drug injection sites opened in New York City late last year. They are locations where people can get clean needles, fentanyl testing strips, food and bring and use their own drugs. If they overdose, there is someone on site who can administer Narcan. The hope is that once people trust these are safe places, they’ll trust the people running them and eventually decide to get treatment.

Jennifer Lewke – Have you visited them and what’s your take on how they’re going and whether that model can be expanded out?

Dr. Cunningham – Yea, I have visited them so, before becoming the Commissioner of OASAS, I worked for the NYC Department of Health and so in that role I visited the overdose prevention centers.

NYS Governor Kathy Hochul has yet to say whether she supports expanding drug injection sites statewide. Dr. Cunningham says she’s watching the data closely and supports community-based groups that already offer almost everything these sites do expect the physical space to actually take the drugs.

Dr. Cunningham – Not everybody is ready for treatment, so we need to keep the doors open, keep those relationships available so that when people are ready for treatment, we’re there to provide it…once people remain alive, we have a lot of opportunity to work with them in many ways.

OASAS runs 12 traditional addiction treatment centers across the state including one in Monroe County. Dr. Cunningham says she is putting more mobile units on the street to better accomplish her goals of meeting people where they are.