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Erie County leaders discuss grim overdose numbers and the changing landscape of drug use

"What we're seeing is really a morphing of the opiate crisis," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Erie County is set to break a devastating new record and surpass its previous mark for opioid overdose deaths as county leaders grapple with changes to the drug landscape.

According to Erie County Health Department data, 298 people died as a result of an opioid overdose in 2022. Twenty additional deaths remain under review. If confirmed, they would push the county past its previous record of 301 opioid overdose deaths set back in 2016.

Back then and even in recent years, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the groups most impacted by the opioid crisis were those under the age of 30 and Caucasians. That has changed.

"What we're seeing is really a morphing of the opiate crisis," Poloncarz said.

Last year the health department reported more overdose deaths occurred among 40 to 60-year-olds and Blacks. Higher numbers of deaths occurred in isolated settings in people's homes, health commissioner Gale Burstein added.

Another factor was that more than half of those killed in 2022 involved cocaine laced with fentanyl.

"In 2016, cocaine was found in only 16% of our opioid overdose deaths, but now in 2022 so far with the confirmed ... 56% of our opioid-related overdose deaths have both fentanyl and cocaine in their toxicology screens," Burstein said.

She added in many cases the individuals using cocaine aren't expecting the presence of the powerful and deadly opioid.

"They think they're using cocaine, they think it's a party drug, they've used it forever and haven't had a problem. But unfortunately it's spiked with fentanyl, and they're not prepared, they don't have Narcan. They're using alone, which is something we don't recommend for anybody," Burstein said.

Additional substances such as methamphetamine and Xylazine, an animal tranquilizer have presented additional challenges as they too have been found with cocaine. The county reported 28 overdose deaths have returned traces of meth and 13 have been linked to Xylazine. 

Credit: United States Food and Drug Administration

Often known as "Tranq," Burstein said Xylazine lasts longer than other opioids, around eight hours, but is also very toxic. The tranquilizer can eat away at skin, lead to ulcers, amputation, and even death, she said. 

"It's used for sedation and pain relief. However, it's being increasingly used in illicit drugs, especially in fentanyl, in our community, and many communities across the state," Burstein added.

Through early March this year, the Erie County Medical Examiner has seen 97 confirmed and probable opioid overdose deaths, which is double the number seen in the same time period last year. If that trend continues, Erie County will break all previous records.

Dustin Swaciak, a recovering heroin addict and the owner of Real Sharp Knife in Cheektowaga, told 2 On Your Side he was actually surprised the numbers reported Thursday weren't higher, given the deadly mix of drugs available.

Swaciak was introduced to oxycontin when he was 14 years old by someone close to him. He said he woke up two years later, was sick, and didn't know why.

"I thought I was going to be that statistic over and over. I still think on my bad days that's where I am destined to be, but I wake up, I start over, and I fight for another day," Swaciak said.

Through prison and rehab, he fought addiction and continues to do so on a daily basis. Swaciak said it was those closest to him, friends and family that saved his life.

"If you feel accepted and supported it gives you that drive," he said.

At a time when public health, even with outreach and the aid of law enforcement working to get more illicit drugs off the street, Swaciak said what could make the biggest dent in the opioid crisis is removing stigma and giving those fighting addiction a chance to talk.

"Anyone out there that's watching this parent-wise, give your kid a hug that's an addict tell them that you love them no matter what and that you're going to be there at the end of the day for them and any addict listening to this talk to somebody."

Swaciak said his door at Real Sharp Knife is always open.

Individuals seeking other resources including Narcan and Fentanyl test strips can order such items through the Erie County Health Department.

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