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Erie County battles opioid epidemic during COVID pandemic

In 2020, Erie County reported 194 opiate-related deaths. That's the highest the county has seen in three years.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the midst of the COVID pandemic, Erie County is dealing with an epidemic: an increasing rise in opiate-related deaths. 

Per the Erie County Department of Health, as of December 31, 2020, the county peaked at 194 opiate-related deaths. That is the highest the county has seen in three years.

In a Thursday news conference, health commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein made it clear that while COVID-19 maintains a community priority, so must tackling the number of people dying and suffering from opiate-related substance abuse. 

"We 're all paying attention to our COVID-19 pandemic. However, we still have so may people in our community that are struggling from opiate use disorder," Burstein said while displaying a slide highlighting the peak in cases.

In 2018, Erie County reported 191 opiate-related deaths. That number decreased in 2019 to 156 deaths, but Burstein says, in comparison, 2020 was not a good year.

Elizabeth Maruo, the CEO of Endeavor Health Services says, a big reason has to do with the toll COVID-19 has taken on people.

"We are looking at drastic increases in terms of depression, anxiety, suicide, overdose and relapses into addictive behavior," Mauro says.

COVID-19 has not only left many people struggling and suffering to deal with their own struggles in isolation, but help and support have not been as easily accessible due to social distancing. 

Mauro tells 2 On Your Side, "when you isolate folks from their support systems and then add fear on top of it, you're going to create just a horrible mix."

Then there's issues such as accessibility and affordability of health care, unemployment, and homelessness.

Mauro says that while she's grateful that telemedicine has entered the arena, it's not effective for everyone.

Erie County's Department of Mental Health and Opiate Epidemic Task Force are working collaboratively with community organizations, like Endeavor, to make resources as timely and available to those in need. 

Resources such as: Narcan training, kits, virtual education and supportive services.

If you or someone you know is in need of support or in danger of an overdose, call 911 immediately.