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Overdose deaths wiping out Erie County population gains

Opioid drug deaths are on a path to wipe out all of Erie County’s recent population gain.

At the exponential rate that residents are dying of heroin and prescription drug overdoses, the county’s increase in population would be lost within two years, according to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

“We’re averaging about 10 deaths a week of Erie County residents as a result of the opiate epidemic,” Poloncarz said Thursday. “I want you to think about this, folks. It took a lot of years for Erie County to start seeing population gain after the drops in the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000. Finally, the population came back.

“The entire amount of population gain we saw in the last 20 years will disappear in two years because of these overdose deaths.”

Census data shows that Poloncarz’s statement may be a bit exaggerated, but his broader point is correct: The county’s population steadily declined for decades, but in 2014, the most recent Census Bureau estimate available, the county saw an uptick of roughly 1,400 residents.

Pushing back against this population gain is the recent spate of drug deaths – from teenagers to the elderly.

The county Medical Examiner’s Office reported this week that as of April 21, it has received 157 cases of suspected or confirmed overdose deaths since Jan. 1, Poloncarz said. This means that in less than four months, there were 30 more overdose deaths than were reported for all of 2014.

The figure of 157 deaths is also alarming when compared with the same period last year, when the Medical Examiner’s Office reported 84 confirmed deaths.

With suspected or confirmed deaths continuing to double year over year, the county is on track to record 500 or more overdose fatalities by year’s end.

“We always see deaths as part of our population growth and declination, but we haven’t seen anything like this – where one cause is killing more people than even auto accidents,” Poloncarz said. “That is a very sad and scary thought.”

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Nationally, drug overdose deaths have surpassed auto accidents as the leading cause of unintentional, injury-related deaths. Opioid drug overdoses account for more than half of all drug overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In light of this health emergency, Poloncarz and the county’s health commissioner, Dr. Gale R. Burstein, stood with other elected officials and overdose-prevention advocates in urging residents to educate themselves about the epidemic and spread the message of prevention. They reinforced one broad theme: The problem is large. It touches everyone – and county residents can play a role in solving it.

“It’s important to raise awareness because there are things people can do in their own homes, in their own families to really make a difference – such as when they’re offered a prescription for a narcotic pain medication, they can say no,” Burstein said. “They can ask for alternatives.”

Poloncarz held his Thursday news conference to announce a town hall-style meeting on opioid addiction. It will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Kenmore West High School auditorium.

He also promoted a free, countywide drug drop-off program that will be held at 12 locations from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The locations will accept all prescription and over-the-counter drugs for disposal, as well as needles and syringes. Information is available on the county Health Department website.

“One of the gateways to people becoming hooked on drugs is through use of unused prescriptions, especially children breaking into their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets and taking pain pills that were not prescribed for them,” Poloncarz said. “The best way to prevent that from ever happening is to get rid of the drugs.”

All drugs turned in at the drop-off sites will be safely incinerated, he said.

email: stan@buffnews.com