NYC Health workers carry wound care packs for ‘tranq’ users

NEW YORK (WPIX) – Guillermo Rodriguez showed PIX11 News the wound care packs he’s been carrying around in the Bronx, inside the BOOM! Health van, as concerns grow about the skin-eating drug xylazine in New York City and around the country.   

“Last summer, we began to see the physical signs,” Rodriguez said. “Because people couldn’t cover up. You would see the rashes, you would see the lesions. We do a lot of wound care.”

Rodriguez also talked about the history of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer known among its users as “tranq,” which started being mixed into heroin and fentanyl doses in Puerto Rico around 2006.

“We call it caballo,” Rodriguez said, referring to the Spanish word for horse. “We call it anestesia de caballo … The anestesia de caballo is now something being included with the fentanyl and the heroin.”

Rodriguez said because the high caused by fentanyl has a shorter “life span,” xylazine is used to mimic the effects of the opioid. 

And while he hasn’t seen the mass amounts of skin ulcers and even amputations that PIX11 News found in Philadelphia, he has been seeing increasing skin problems among Bronx drug users. Rodriguez’s colleague, Phyllis Ford, said she’s noticed it too.

“I’m seeing a lot of infections,” Ford said. “Pus rolling out on their arms. It looks a little worse now.”

Recent data from the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office showed that xylazine was present in about 20% of the fatal overdoses in New York City, although it’s never present alone. It’s always mixed with drugs like fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine.

Every week, Rodriguez and Ford bring their BOOM! Health van to East 149th Street near St. Ann’s Avenue to hand out clean needles so users can avoid HIV and hepatitis infections.

Several IV-drug users injected their dose of fentanyl in a private space right near the van, as purported dealers met with drug customers across the street. About 30 minutes later, an NYPD patrol car arrived with lights flashing and parked near the area; everyone scattered.

Shortly after PIX11 News started reporting on tranq in February, the Food and Drug Administration said it would crack down on xylazine imports to make sure they’re only going to veterinary hospitals and offices.

This past Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer held a press conference in central New York after learning 40-plus people had overdosed in Syracuse on March 1 on a drug mixture suspected to include xylazine. Two people died and another was left in critical condition.

“Analyze where it’s coming from,” Schumer said. “To basically cut off the illegal supply that’s reaching central New York and upstate New York.”

During recent testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Derek Maltz – a former agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration – said xylazine is available online through Chinese websites, along with the precursor chemicals needed to make fentanyl, a man-made opioid.

Rodriguez pointed out that Narcan doesn’t work on a sedative like xylazine to reverse an overdose. And he repeated the warning that so many local and federal officials have made: “If you’re taking heroin or cocaine or any other pill, you don’t know what’s in it.”

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