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8 confirmed overdose deaths in 48 hours, possibly more

National Public Radio

There has been another sudden surge in apparent drug overdoses in Erie County and in the surrounding counties: eleven cases between Saturday afternoon and Monday afternoon.

Since toxicology tests can take months to complete, it will be a while before it is known whether these latest cases are overdoses. However, the death toll is piling up. There have been 40 confirmed overdoses and 122 suspected cases this year.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein says it is not completely clear what is causing this surge, although it is probably a combination of drugs, including heroin, the more potent opioid fentanyl and cocaine in some mix.

Burstein says the death toll is straining the public health system to the point it is unsustainable, especially at the Medical Examiner's Office.

"They've alerted us of this rash of suspected overdose cases, so, then, we are able to reach out to the community and alert them of some very potentially dangerous drugs on the street," Burstein says. "That will hopefully end up saving lives, and they don't really get much of the credit because they're not out there on the front lines, but they are really giving us very valuable information."

Further straining the system is the Medical Examiner's Office is losing one of its physicians and another is going on extended medical leave. To fill the gap, Burstein says the county is contracting with six New York City pathologists who will fly in here to do the required autopsies.

Every person who is a suspected drug overdose receives a full autopsy, in case it is not an overdose and to make sure all of the information is ready for a possible court case. The county toxicology lab at Erie County Medical Center is also being rehabbed.

Burstein also cited Amherst opposition to a planned treatment center, the town arguing it would be in a residential area.

"What's very concerning to me is that now the Town Board is considering writing a resolution that will prohibit any further additional medication-assisted treatment facilities in any district in Amherst that they consider residential," she says. "And they haven't defined what residential is and they haven't defined what any aspect of medication assisted treatment."

Burstein says that could potentially bar doctors with offices in Amherst from offering medication in their offices to deal with drug problems. Last year, there were a dozen fatal overdoses in the town and several more deaths where drugs are suspected, but autopsies are not yet complete.

She says the county is working to speed up the process of the toxicology lab testing. It has new software and equipment in place to make the testing more timely. So, although the county is working on it, Burtsein says it is the volume of cases that is a real challenge now.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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