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With decline in opioid deaths, Erie County sees start of light at the end of the tunnel

Erie County is celebrating the first major sign of success in its battle against the opioid epidemic.

The number of deaths from opioid overdose in 2017 currently sits at 233. It’s a lot, but it’s also good news because even with 35 additional cases still pending confirmation, the combined total would still be ten percent lower than the number seen in 2016.

“This is a tremendous sign that the work that we’ve been doing in our community for the last two years is making a difference,” said Erie County Executive Poloncarz.

Poloncarz announced the news on Tuesday morning, praising the work of law enforcement, health care providers, local governments, and the thousands of individuals who have contributed to the decline.

“It’s not easy to do it,” he said. “It really requires you to have an all hands on deck approach. But if you do that, you can see successes where others unfortunately are still failing.”

In early 2016, Poloncarz declared the opioid epidemic a county-wide public health crisis after seeing a spike in confirmed cases of overdose deaths. The number had jumped from 127 in 2014 to 256 in 2015, and continued to rise to 301 by the end of 2016. Adding fuel to the fire was the appearance of high-strength drugs like fentanyl.

During the press conference, County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein dug deeper into the results of the current 2017 data. The majority of overdose deaths by category were male, white, and in the 20 to 30 age range.

“This is so sad because they’re children, they’re actually parents themselves, they’re siblings, they’re BFFs, and they had their whole lives ahead of them,” said Burstein. “And they end up succumbing to a disease – a chronic disease – that could be preventable.”

While the bulk of the deaths took place in the City of Buffalo and surrounding suburbs, it wasn’t exclusive to those regions. Overdoses, still driven largely by fentanyl, claimed lives in rural areas and among the homeless population as well.

Poloncarz and Burstein agree that there was no one program or idea that was more responsible than any other for the drop in overdose deaths. Most of the initiatives will continue, including an ad campaign. At the press conference, Poloncarz displayed mock-ups of the signs that will debut on billboards across the county in April, urging those suffering from addiction to seek help before it’s too late.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Billboards with the same images seen on these smaller-scale mock-ups will be seen across Erie County this April.

Poloncarz likened the task of tackling the opioid epidemic to how President Franklin Roosevelt approached the great depression – throw everything at the wall, see what sticks, and otherwise try something new. Poloncarz admitted that not all programs were as successful as others. Programs like Rapid Evaluation for Appropriate Placement, which aimed for law enforcement to focus on treatment, rather than arrest for drug use were less utilized than expected. The program will continue, but more focus will be placed elsewhere.

Within reason, Poloncarz is optimistic about what the downward trend in overdose deaths could mean for the county. He said, “It’s still going to take some time, including a few more years, to get back to the point where we were before the epidemic occurred. But I don’t believe we’re at the beginning or the middle of it anymore. I think we’re at the beginning of the end, and we do see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter @SAvery131.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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