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County, federal officials warn of sharp rise in fatal opiate overdoses

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Local health officials and law enforcers say the year 2016 is showing no signs of relief from opiate addiction. They're reporting a sharp rise in fatal overdoses in a short span of time, possibly about two dozen cases in a 10-day span.

Erie County leaders joined federal law enforcers in a news conference in the Emergency Department of Erie County Medical Center to issue what they call an emergency warning in regards to the county's opiate crisis.

According to information released to reporters at the news conference, nine deaths in seven days are linked to opiate overdoses. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz then stated that the death count could rise significantly, pending the completion of lab tests.

"Unfortunately it takes quite a long time to finish toxicology reports, and we have so many of them at our toxicology lab in Erie County," Poloncarz said. "It'll take some time to confirm it all, but since January 29 through February 7 we have what we believe to be 23 overdose deaths in Erie County, as a result of opiate-based overdoses."

Health commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein pointed out that with the availability of Narcan in some cases, the fatalities are "just the tip of the iceberg."

"You can assume that there are many, many more overdoses that are either responded to by first responders, or stay-at-home and are able to use Narcan in their home or the somehow survive," she said.

Officials spoke of reports of an especially potent batch of heroin mixed with fentanyl now available on the streets. US Attorney William Hochul, who also spoke at Tuesday morning's news conference at ECMC, said there's never such a thing as a safe batch of heroin.

"There's absolutely no quality control when it comes to buying heroin when it comes to buying from your street corner drug dealer," Hochul said. "Whether it's a bad batch now, or what you thought to be a good batch from a trusted dealer in the past, every time you pick up that needle and put it in your arm, you are whistling past the grave."

Opiate overdoses were blamed for 128 deaths in Erie County in 2014. With some lab results still incomplete, officials fear the death toll in 2015 will be at least double 2014's count.  Poloncarz suggested that the numbers already recorded so far this year put the county on a pace for 600 to 700 fatal overdoses this year, at the least.

"I was thinking about this yesterday when I saw these numbers. We're seeing this nice rebound in population growth. We could actually lose that population growth by the number of people dying unnecessarily as a result of overdoses from opiates," Poloncarz said. "It's that bad."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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