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Opioid, cocaine overdose deaths rising in Erie County, officials warn

Erie County Health Department

Opioid-related deaths are expected to rise in Erie County this year, ending a three-year downward trend. But county leaders say there's also a projected steep rise in fatalities involving cocaine mixed with heroin or fentanyl.

So far in 2020, 44 fatalities are confirmed opioid-related overdoses. But there are still 127 cases pending. Last year, there were a total 156 opioid-related deaths in the county. It had marked the third consecutive year of declines of opioid deaths, which peaked at 301 in 2016.

In addition to more anticipated opioid-related deaths, there's a rise in cases involving cocaine. A little more than 15 percent of all opioid-related fatalities in Erie County in 2016 involved fentanyl and cocaine, according to toxicology tests by the Medical Examiner's Office. This year, among closed cases so far, the number rises to 45 percent.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz, at a news conference outside the Rath Building Tuesday, recalled issuing a warning about rising cocaine-related fatalities during his routine COVID briefings during the spring season.

"It became a joke among people in some circles, to a point they put my face on a shirt and said, 'oh, Mark Poloncarz says wash your hands don't do cocaine.' They thought it was funny," he said. "Since that was said, people in our county have died from overdoses."

The county's Commissioner of Mental Health, Mark O'Brien, says the disruptions to daily life caused by COVID-19 has led to many feeling a sense of anxiety and disconnection from social supporters.

"Invincibility is really getting in the way of some really good judgment, and people are not making good decisions around this," O'Brien said. "And they're turning to cocaine or turning back to cocaine, where opioids are not available in the same way they were."

O'Brien added that fentanyl does not discriminate, "knowing no race, creed, color," calling it an "equal opportunity killer."

Another noticeable trend, Poloncarz pointed out, is a rise in fatalities involving older individuals. Ten people who have died of overdoses so far this year were age 60 or older. Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein says many are professional, middle-aged individuals who were found at home alone.

The Erie  County Opiate Epidemic Task Force is expected to discuss this trend at its August 3 meeting. The health commissioner says free Narcan kits are available from the Erie County Health Department. It may also be acquired at no cost by texting (716) 225-5473. 

"We want everybody to carry Narcan when they can," Burstein said. "You never know when you might need it."

County officials are also encouraging individuals struggling with a substance use disorder, or their loved ones, to utilize the Crisis Services Addiction Hotline, (716) 831-7007.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn issued a warning to those who may use cocaine: one cannot know for sure whether opioids have been mixed with it.

"You're not going to know by the smell. You're not going to know it by the texture per se. You would actually have to do a test to determine if in fact it is fentanyl or heroin," he said. "Unless you are a very sophisticated user, you're not going to be able to look at it and actually feel and tell the difference in the cut."

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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