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Erie County sees significant spike in opioid-related overdose deaths

The Erie County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed 232 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020, compared to 156 in 2019.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein announced Wednesday that the county saw a sharp increase in overdose-related deaths in 2020.

During a virtual news conference, Dr. Burstein and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz shared data from the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office and the Opiate Epidemic Task Force, showing that the county saw a 49 percent increase in opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020.

The Erie County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed 232 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020, with 17 cases still pending toxicology reports. In 2019, 156 opioid-related deaths were recorded in the county.  

Dr. Burstein cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the main reason for the spike. The coronavirus pandemic caused the cancellation of most in-person Narcan trainings, so health department staff shifted to free, online classes and mailing free Narcan kits to participants.

"I think it was a perfect storm of events" she said. "First of all, we had to put a pause on many of the opioid prevention services that we had been implementing because, of course, the health department had to lead our charge of our COVID-19 pandemic response, so we had to move some people. Also just because of the risk of close contact of COVID-19 transmission we had to pivot and figure out how to offer all of our services virtually.

"People lost their jobs their livelihoods, their businesses, they spent their whole life building up, and many people who kept their job had to work from home."

Dr. Burstein said that the percentage of overdose deaths in 2020 with opioid and cocaine involvement increased from about 15 percent in 2016 to 43 percent. In addition, 84 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020 involved fentanyl.

“The percentage of overdose fatalities with cocaine involvement is troubling, and we have to sound an even louder alarm that cocaine is not safe,” Dr. Burstein said. “Cocaine in Erie County is likely to contain fentanyl, which is a powerful and dangerous opioid that can stop your breathing and end your life almost instantaneously. Don’t trust your cocaine.”

Dr.Burstein said availability of Narcan and people trained to use it are both key in preventing opioid-related overdose deaths.

In June, the "Text for Narcan" program that mails Narcan was created to safely distribute naloxone during the pandemic. 

Erie County encourages anyone struggling with a substance abuse disorder to contact their 24/7 addiction hotline at (716) 831-7007. 

You can also receive medication assisted treated through the NY Matters program for medication assisted treatment.

"There is treatment, there are people out there that care and there is an easy way to access services," Dr. Burstein said.