ROCKAWAY BEACH — Dr. Janie Simmons has spent her professional career working to prevent overdoses in some of the most vulnerable populations.
But her latest project — educating her own neighborhood about the overdose reversal drug naloxone — could be her most difficult, she said.
"Parts of this community could be harder to reach because of the idea that [addiction] is a moral failing," she said while discussing her new program, Rockaway Gets Naloxone, which will be introduced this week with a grant from the Department of Health.
The city’s highest opioid overdose rates are on Staten Island and in The Bronx, which have recorded more than twice the number of overdoses than in Queens.
But Rockaway residents had a higher rate of drug overdose than city residents overall — with 9.9 overdoses per 100,000 residents, according to data released in 2015 and calculated between 2012 and 2013.
Newer data shows Rockaway’s overdose rate has fallen slightly, but the problem is still pervasive.
Seeing that data is what alerted Simmons to the problem in her own neighborhood, where she's lived since 2005. She’s an ethnographer who has worked with drug users for decades, focusing on barriers to treatment, drug-using couples and how users start using drugs.
"There needs to be a willingness to recognize there’s an epidemic in our midst that’s preventable," she said.
Rockaway Gets Naloxone is a two-pronged effort that will provide education and training on how to use naloxone and disseminate this life-saving medication to Rockaway and Broad Channel residents.
Simmons has been working on reversing opioid overdoses through her website, Get Naloxone Now, which has provided training to police, fire and EMT officials as well as ordinary citizens on how to recognize signs of an overdose and use the naloxone nasal spray.
Since launching the site in 2014, she’s trained more than 25,000 people across the country, Simmons said.
Her plan locally will focus on education and distribution of naloxone, and will begin this week with an information session at Whit's End Pizza in Riis Park this Thursday, March 30.
It's part of the city's larger effort, HealingNYC, which is working to curb the opioid epidemic. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that he wants to "flood the streets" with naloxone.
The city also hopes to destigmatize addiction, which Simmons plans to do by speaking about it at local civic meetings, churches or on the boardwalk.
"This issue really needs to have a community-wide efforts that’s all of Rockaway — tip to tip — and Broad Channel," she said.
"It’s not just something other people have to deal with."
Simmons says the problem is just another challenge the entire peninsula can work to solve together — just like they did after Hurricane Sandy.
"I'm hoping the community can embrace this as another similar challenge. We can give people a second chance," she said.
"We need to peddle hope and compassion. I hope this does it."