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Group Rallys to Raise Awareness

HUDSON — A group of Columbia County residents rallied in Seventh Street Park on Friday to raise awareness about fentanyl overdoses.

The event was held as part of a national community outreach day organized by the Association of People Against Lethal Drugs. The rally was attended by several Columbia County residents, as well as members of the Columbia-Greene Addiction Coalition and Greener Pathways.

Debra Berninger, a resident of Ghent, organized the event in Hudson on Friday. Berninger’s son Eric Berninger died of fentanyl and xylazine overdose in March 2023 when he was 33.

“My son was a great kid,” Berninger said. “A couple of years ago, he had a bad accident. He had brain surgery and started taking opioids, and that’s how it usually starts. He was great, he loved his kids. He has two kids, he loved them more than anything in the world, and they loved him.”

She discovered the Association of People Against Lethal Drugs after her son’s death, and joined the group.

“What happens is you look up one thing,” she said. “I think I joined a grief group, and you start getting posts from everybody and that’s how I found out about it.”

The Columbia-Greene Addiction Coalition attended the event in support of Berninger, said Hannah Calhoun, executive director of the coalition.

“We are supporting Debra (Berninger) and raising awareness about the dangers of fentanyl, increasing prevention and harm-reduction initiatives in this county, and supporting those who are in treatment and recovery,” she said. “We’re not actually apart of the APALD group, but we are here to support a community member.”

At the event, the coalition gave out naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, test strips for fentanyl and xylazine, as well as drug disposal bags to deactivate prescription drugs to make them safe to throw out in household trash.

“Our goal is to work with teenagers and adults, and to make people feel normal about potentially saving a life,” said Tiffany Hudson, outreach coordinator at the Columbia-Greene Addiction Coalition. “You don’t want anybody to feel stigmatized as far as ‘oh, if I have Narcan, they’re going to think I’m a user.’”

It is important for everyone to feel comfortable enough to potentially save a person’s life, Hudson said.

“There’s been too many incidents in the past before Narcan was invented where a life could have been saved if they only had a few more minutes before the paramedics came,” she said. “If we can have it normalized throughout the county in different restaurants, in people’s homes, apartments, just to have it just in case. We don’t want anyone to lose a life, if we can save one. Let’s save one. It’s like having a Band-Aid in the house, you don’t know when you’re going to get a cut but you have one just in case.”

In Columbia County, 43 people died from a drug overdose between 2019 and 2022, with 14 of those deaths occurring in 2022, according to the Columbia-Greene Addiction Coalitions Opioid Data Dashboard.

Drugs are having a larger impact on younger people, Berninger said.

“The drugs now are hitting that working-class age, that 20-45, our whole next working class,” she said. “At that age, you’re losing your next working class.”

In 2021, the overdose rates in the U.S. for people ages 25-34 was 52.9 per 100,000 people, and for people ages 35-44, the rate was 62 per 100,000 people, according to a December 2022 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

There needs to be more done to address the fentanyl crisis, including making rehabilitation programs more accessible, Berninger said.

“These young adults that need to have these programs also need to have an advocate, a peer advocate,” she said. “I think that would be a great thing. I think we need to look at the whole system and revamp it. What we have right now isn’t working.”

Berninger has been advocating for the system to change since her son’s death, she said.

“I have pounded the sidewalks from police company to police company, to congressmen, to mayors since this has happened,” Berninger said. “That’s the way you have to do it, if I hadn’t done it, nobody would have. I intend to make sure my son’s death wasn’t in vain, somethings going to change, that’s my intent is to make it not be in vain, to make it safer for my grandchildren.”

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