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International Overdose Awareness Day Aims To Break Stigma And Back Survivors

HAUPPAGUE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- International Overdose Awareness Day is the world's largest campaign to end overdoses.

It's also a day to remember, without the stigma, those who have died and acknowledge the grief of families and friends left behind.

Candles were lit at THRIVE Long Island on Tuesday for the 391 Long Islanders who lost their lives to overdose during the pandemic. Among them was Billy Reitzig.

"That's the hardest part. I thought I was going to the hospital to meet him, and he didn't make it. My wife said, 'Billy didn't make it.' I said, 'That can't be true,'" father Bill Reitzig told CBS2's Jennifer McLogan.

Across the country last year, there were 93,000 overdose deaths.

"That's 93,000 families that will forever be changed," said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, with the Family & Children's Association.

International Overdose Awareness Day is a time to come together for prevention, treatment, support and recovery.

"I am a person in long-term recovery -- I have four years in recovery -- and I lost my son's father to an overdose," recovered addict Stephanie Camilliti said.

Camilliti, of Lake Grove, said she wants to share the story of her survival.

"I definitely think that this day is important to help reduce that stigma and to bring awareness," she said.

"We need some action. This is the time where the rubber hits the road," Reynolds said. "The reality is, over the course of the past year, there are 391 Long Islanders who lost their lives to overdose."

Fatal drug overdoses surged during the pandemic on Long Island -- more than 34%.

Earlier this month, a dozen men and women from the East End accidentally overdosed on cocaine laced with fentanyl. Six died, and two men claiming their innocence were arrested in connection with the case.

"If there is fentanyl, we will encourage them to discard it. And if they choose not to because of the disease of addiction, we will continue to pass out naloxone. This saved 1,500 lives last year," said Steve Chassman, of Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addition (LICADD).

Experts say overdoses are linked to social isolation, financial anxieties and mental health challenges caused by the pandemic.

"COVID is not an excuse. This is a day of memorial, it's a day of education and awareness, but it's a call to arms. We need to do more. Who's with us?" Chassman said. "We need to do more. Who's with us?"

Their slogan, "Time to Remember. Time to Act," acknowledges a difficult day in a difficult year.

Advocates say by observing International Overdose Awareness Day, one becomes part of a global movement for a better world.

Sharon Richmond is fighting the fight for hospital stays in honor of her son, Vincent.

"He had four insurance denials the year before he passed away," she said.

Richmond is raising the purple flag across Huntington and Northport.

Bill Reitzig is on board.

"I don't want that to happen to anyone else," he said.

Watch Jennifer McLogan's report -- 

A vigil was held in Brooklyn on Tuesday evening with the names of New Yorkers who have died from a drug overdose glowing by candlelight.

"I got a phone call saying my brother passed away of an overdose in a halfway house in New Jersey. He had only been there three days," Mishy Ramos, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, told CBS2's Ali Bauman.

Ann Marie Foster, CEO of the recovery center Phoenix House, says the COVID pandemic has upended the opioid epidemic.

"I think the fact that people are struggling with depression and isolation and anxiety has increased it, and then the reason why people are probably dying more from it is because they're by themselves," she said.

As it stands, every five hours, someone in New York City dies of an unintentional overdose.

Earlier in the day, Phoenix House held trainings on how to administer Narcan to help save someone's life.

"We want to train people and teach everybody that this medication, this prescribed medication, Narcan, is accessible to everyone and is easy enough to help prevent an overdose," said Justin Shaw, associate medical director for Phoenix House.

"If I would have known this before, I probably would have been able to save a friend of mine's life," said Amanda Smith, who participated in Tuesday's training.

"When I grew up in the '80s, it was a war against drugs," trainee Kema Daise said. "I've seen a lot of overdoses. They didn't get the help. They were tossed in jails, treated like animals, so now, I like that they're changing the look of it and not looking at people with addiction like animals."

Advocates say anyone can pick up a Narcan kit from their local pharmacy.

In New Jersey, the photos of more than 300 people who lost their lives to drugs are now displayed in front of Wayne Township's town hall.

"The rate that these people are dying, it's rapid. It's rapid," Ramos said.

But with the pain comes hope.

"I got over 20 years clean, so I just wish everybody would stay clean," said Vicki Hill, of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

As International Overdose Awareness Day ends, September begins National Recovery Month.

CBS2's Jennifer McLogan contributed to this report.

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