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Drug overdose deaths rise 25% in Erie County during pandemic year

Erie County Department of Health
The graph shows the ups and downs of fatal opioid overdoses over the last eight years.

The loneliness and isolation of the pandemic appears to be fueling a significant rise in drug overdoses in Erie County.
When you see a graph of opioid overdose deaths for the last eight years, it is a rapid rise until 2016 and then a slow fall as all of the safety measures took place to keep people from dying. That changed last year -- the COVID year -- with a rise, from 156 deaths in 2019 to 194 deaths and 68 more waiting for toxicology tests in 2020.

"We saw many young people, people in their late teens, 20s and early 30s that were still coming to opioid overdose deaths," said County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein. "Now we’re seeing people that are overdose deaths that are, they’re more professionals, they’re more middle-aged and, unfortunately, they are found at home alone. So they are using home alone."

Burstein said some appear to be using drugs rather than slower-killing alcohol and most of the drug deaths involve cocaine that is almost always mixed with fentanyl.

Credit Erie County Department of Health
Erie County Department of Health

She said the department continues its efforts to keep people safe, which includes the distribution of Narcan to fight overdoses and education, like the new campaign "Never Use Alone."

"Let the service know that you’re using and when you will be using and they will program in to contact you, however you want, either by text or phone five minutes after you say you will be using," she said. "If you don’t respond, they will call up 911. So you actually will not be alone while you’re using, even though you will physically be alone."

Burstein said many long-term programs, like Crisis Services' 24-hour hotlines, are also around for help.  The Live Well Erie van will be at St. John Kanty Church on Buffalo's East Side Thursday afternoon, offering a variety of health assistance programs.

"And starting on Jan. 12, next Tuesday, we are going to be at the corner of Grant and Ferry Street on the West Side, between 4 and 7, also giving those services," Burstein said, "with Narcan, Narcan communications, condoms, COVID information and general health information."

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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