Drug overdoses reach beyond 3,000 in N.J. for first time
People in New Jersey are still dying from overdoses in extraordinary numbers. While state officials recorded the largest year-end total yet at the end of 2018, the rate of deaths may be slowing.
Preliminary data from NJ CARES at the state Attorney General’s Office show 3,163 people lost their lives in drug-related overdoses as of Dec. 30. That’s about a 15 percent increase over deaths recorded in 2017, and advocates hope what is being done now will make a difference.
“I think we’ve made tremendous progress. There’s great awareness about this epidemic,” said Angelo Valente, executive director of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.
“It will take time to get to the point when see numbers move in the other direction with less overdoses, less need of Narcan, but we need to be equally diligent to get people access to treatment immediately,” he said.
State departments and agencies, law enforcement and first responders, private and public health providers, prevention education agencies and others have rolled out collaborative programs, policies and strategies to address the epidemic.
Just this past year, organizers in Atlantic and Cape May counties launched Hope One mobile addiction outreach vans to bring together resources for struggling residents.
Still, people are dying, but the growth from year to year is slowing, data shows. In the past four years, the year-over-year increases have been between 22 percent and as high as 40 percent.
After seeing a decline in overdose deaths in 2017, state data shows the numbers of deaths have gone back up in 2018 in both Atlantic and Ocean counties. Overdose deaths for 2018 are not yet final and are subject to change.
Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler said there are many out there working hard to get rid of the stigma attached to getting treatment in the hope that more people seek it.
They’re providing such things as the county’s Hope One van, which partners with more than 20 other organizations and providers and can help bridge the gaps in access to care and education around addiction by meeting people where they are at in the community, he said.
“Since September, we’ve gotten about 100 people into treatment,” Scheffler said. “We can’t be discouraged. We’re trying to keep people alive so that they can get help.”
Going into 2019, Scheffler said, the coalition hopes to expand its team, add a newsletter distribution with stories of people in long-term recovery, increase awareness about its temporary ID program, provide more community training and get more people into treatment programs.
Valente said the Drug-Free organization will also focus its efforts on continuing to educate parents and families as well as health providers on the link between opioid prescriptions and the risk of addiction.
With the Horizon Foundation of New Jersey, Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey will launch a continuing medical education credit course for health professionals on the epidemic and best prescribing practices.
NJ CARES data show prescribing rates continue to go down. More than 4.1 million opioid prescriptions were made to residents in 2018, a drop of about 14 percent.
The Drug-Free organization will also be running campaigns to increase awareness of the role that fentanyl has played in the addiction epidemic, Valente said.
Fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin and morphine, was involved in more than half of all overdose deaths in 2017.
Law enforcement officials have said the drug has made it more difficult to revive people with opioid reversals like naloxone. The Hope One vans, along with the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, have started handing out fentanyl testing strips to active users to help them detect the drug.
“We’re going to have to be aggressive in providing info and as many treatment options as possible,” Valente said. “We do see that recovery works. We have more people in long-term recovery in the state who are doing great things, and we still have many people who are still struggling.”
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Big changes are coming for inmates when they move into the new $37 million Cape May County Correctional Facility in the next two weeks, as they gain more living space and better facilities for important services like medical care.
But even bigger changes are coming for correctional officers, who for the first time will be mingling with inmates in their housing units during their shifts.
“It’s called ‘direct supervision,’” said Capt. Charles “Chuck” Magill, the operations commander for the jail. “Any new jail nowadays goes to that.”
Under direct supervision, officers will spend their 12-hour shifts in the five housing units, each of which can hold a maximum of 64 inmates. Only maximum security inmates will be required to stay in cells most of the day, while the rest will spend their time in common areas.
“The data proves inmates are better off and safer, and officers’ injuries and casualties decreased,” Sheriff Robert Nolan said, who went to a training session held by the federal government’s National Institute of Corrections in Colorado recently.
“They likened it to community policing. You are working in a neighborhood and have a better sense of camaraderie — a keener sense of what is going on in the environment,” Nolan said.
Reporters toured the vast new jail Monday, getting a close up view of the housing units, the medical facility and the intake process inmates will experience. The facility features tan or grey cinderblock walls, metal trim and doors, fluorescent lights and no windows to the outside.
The new jail is located just behind the old one on Crest Haven Road. The old facility will be demolished within six months of the inmates moving, making room for a parking lot there, officials said.
In housing units, a day room holds a TV and tables for playing games, relaxing and eating meals; a bank of special phones with screens allows for virtual visits with friends and family members; and a garage-like indoor-outdoor area for exercise that allows inmates to get fresh air without leaving the secure area.
From the exercise area, inmates cannot see outside and those visiting the cemetery nearby won’t see or hear the inmates, Magill said.
Direct supervision doesn’t require more staffing, Nolan said.
“We are not going to have to hire any new people,” he said.
There are 87 people in the correctional division now, overseeing 190 inmates as of this morning, Magill said.
Officers have been trained in interpersonal communications to get ready for the transition, said Officer Patrick Netherby. They will now be talking more to the inmates and helping them work through issues.
“That way we can stop problems before they occur,” Netherby said.
The new system also creates more accountability on both sides. Officers can’t just say they are going to do something, then walk away. They have to follow through on it, because they will see that inmate day after day, Netherby said.
And inmates must follow all the rules to have the privilege of more freedom.
Those who break rules, even small ones such as not putting on the two-piece jumpsuit or making derogatory remarks to officers, will be sent to a detention unit where there is less physical freedom, said Magill.
Frequent or serious violations can get an inmate’s classification changed from minimal security to medium or maximum, with decreasing freedom at each step.
“That’s the only way to keep control under direct supervision,” Magill said.
The new jail can hold a total of 320 inmates, with two to a cell, and more when all the medical beds are used.
The old jail was built in 1976 to hold about 180 inmates, Nolan said. Inmates were often doubled up in rooms designed to hold one, and it was deemed overcrowded by the state Department of Corrections, which pressured the county to address the problem.
In the summer of 2009, it held 340 inmates, Magill said.
The count averaged about 220 this summer and a little less than 200 for the past few months.
“The count was up to over 240, but it dropped with bail reform,” Magill said.
Bail reform, which took effect in January 2017, requires most people who are arrested to be released — often on conditions other than bail — as long as they are not deemed a threat to the community.
The county had to choose among closing the jail and paying about $12 million a year to house and transport the inmates in other counties; renovating the existing building or renovating and adding on at an estimated cost of $19 million to $29 million; sharing one jail with other counties at an unknown total cost or time of completion; or building new at a cost of $37 million, Nolan said.
He said the county determined a new jail was the best option, and its cost will be spread out over 30 years and not require a tax increase.
NORTHFIELD — A new law will soon require middle school students across the state to learn about budgeting, saving and investments.
In Northfield, they’ve already been learning it for several years.
On Thursday, acting Gov. Sheila Oliver signed a bill requiring the financial education in grades six through eight at the President Barack Obama Elementary School in Jersey City with a goal to improve financial literacy among youth. According to lawmakers, the bill will help students become prepared for paying for college, buying a home and managing finances.
“Financial responsibility is an important acquired and learned life skill and with the increasing financial challenges millennials face, it is a skill that must be a necessary part of our educational curriculum,” Oliver said during the signing.
Northfield Community School Principal Kevin Morrison saw the value in the life skill for his young students, and, with the help of teacher Colleen Kennedy, put it into play when he came to the district through an elective, as well as integrating it into the math department.
“It’s hard in school sometimes because you see linear equations and you think, ‘When am I going to use that?’” Morrison said.
He said with the financial literacy elective, his students can see the real-world application of the things they are learning.
“Kids, they see it. They want a good job, a good house,” he said. “It’s such a real world skill. The earlier they start thinking about those things the better off they are.”
He said it also focuses them, letting them see the earning potential of different careers, and how a household budget would work.
“It gets them to see the bigger picture at a younger age,” Morrison said.
During fifth and sixth grade, students take each of the school’s six electives, also called “specials.” In seventh and eighth grade, they can choose one elective to take the entire year. In the financial literacy elective students do several projects, including one on the stock market and a trip to the Atlantic City Boat Show, where they have to find and “purchase” a boat within their budgets.
The need for financial literacy education in schools has been championed for several years by business organizations and others.
“It’s critical that young adults go out into the real world with a greater understanding of financial responsibility and how to better manage their money and avoid debt. While financial literacy is taught in high school, starting an earlier pathway to learn how to make good, sound financial decisions will be of great benefit for our students,” said Michael Wallace, New Jersey Business and Industry Association vice president of government affairs, in reaction to the new law.
Since 2010, financial literacy has been incorporated into high school education as part of the state’s learning standards and graduation requirements.
Other bills remain pending to help improve financial literacy among teens, including one that passed the Senate last session but has not made it out of Assembly.
That proposed law would change the high school graduation requirements to include instruction on tuition assistance programs and student loan debt and require high school students to meet with guidance counselors to discuss tuition assistance and dual enrollment.
Morrison said it’s never too early to expose students to financial education, especially since students are already handling money through allowances, birthday gifts or, for some, after-school and summer jobs.
“It’s in how you present it. If you broke out a W-4, I think they would be too young to understand,” he said. “By the time they’re in eighth grade, I think they’re old enough to understand the ins and out.”
LOWER TOWNSHIP — The Murphy family lost a wife and mother who was dedicated to helping others in a fire that overtook their Villas house Friday morning.
Melody Murphy, 70, did not make it out of the fire that started in her and her husband’s home on the 200 block of East Florida Avenue at about 6:45 a.m. Jan. 4, police said.
According to the Southern Regional Medical Examiner Office, her cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of the fire.
Murphy worked as the church secretary at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in the Villas for at least 25 years under at least three consecutive pastors, according to her daughter, Megan Murphy.
“She did a whole lot more than just being a secretary,” said best friend Pastor Leah Lavelle from Holy Spirit Lutheran Church.
Lavelle said though Melody Murphy spent only a few hours a week working at the church, she had an impact on so many peoples’ lives.
“When people came to the church or the food pantry and needed someone to talk to, she would stop her work and listen. She just took so good care of us,” said Lavelle.
“The congregation is just hurting today. Not because we lost someone who did so much, but because she was so good to everyone.”
She was responsible for handing out groceries three days a week to those in need as part of the church’s food pantry. She and several other women at the church also knitted or crocheted prayer shawls to be given to those in the hospital.
Megan Murphy said her mother also worked the front desk at Megan’s tattoo studio, Eternal Etchings Body Studio, in the Villas for the first 10 years it opened. Her mother had no tattoos herself, but would work at the church in the morning and then spend the rest of the day at the studio.
“She helped a lot of people navigate the scariness in getting a tattoo. She just made them feel like they were family and took care of them,” Megan said. “She was such an amazing lady and I am going to miss her something awful.”
Joseph Murphy, Melody’s husband, was outside with neighbors when officials arrived at the scene, police said. He had sustained smoke inhalation and other minor injuries.
Megan Murphy said her father is still in the hospital, but should be released soon.
Joesph Murphy thought he had lost all his wife’s prayer blankets in the fire, but during his stay in the hospital he was unexpectedly handed a prayer shawl she had made.
“He was very moved by that,” Megan Murphy said.
This is an ongoing investigation and the cause and origin of the fire is still under investigation by the Cape May County Fire Marshal’s Office, the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office and the Lower Township Police Department.
Megan said if people would like to do something in remembrance of her mother, they can honor her love of kittens and donate to the Cape May County Animal Shelter in Cape May Court House.
Staff Writer Nicole Leonard contributed to this report.