The picture looked so bleak a year ago, with roughly a dozen people a week dying of opiate-related addictions in Erie County. But now, victim advocates and health professionals utter a word that once seemed foreign amid the crisis: hope.
“There are people now getting into care, and people expressing hope where they were not expressing hope in the past,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein. “In just the past six months, we have made tremendous progress in addressing our opioid epidemic. A year ago, the community was just waking up to this problem.”
In the past 12 months:
• More than 6,000 people have received Narcan training from the county to revive those on the verge of overdose deaths. That doesn’t count other non-county trainers who have educated hundreds more.
• Erie County launched its Opiate Epidemic Task Force, which has created an uncommon and active working group of stakeholders, from police and policymakers to doctors and grieving parents. They have tackled the complex problem of opioid addiction from multiple angles, influencing both local and statewide policies and programs.
“Collectively, as a community, I think we’ve moved mountains,” said Cheryll Moore, medical care administrator for Erie County who supervises Narcan training and supports the task force’s other work.
• Crisis Services launched on Monday a new 24-hour hotline – 831-7007 – for addicts and family members needing help. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the hotline fielded 105 calls. The new hotline supports the REAP program, an integrated, rapid-response program launched by the county task force.
• Also under the REAP program, six police departments in Erie and Niagara counties started an open-door policy to provide assistance to addicts who go into their stations looking for treatment. Seven more departments will join the effort next month.
• The governor and State Legislature enacted sweeping legislation in June to make it easier for addicts to receive treatment and insurance coverage. They also boosted training and educational efforts to help keep people from becoming addicted to painkillers.
• More than a dozen stakeholders worked together on Saturday to sponsor training for more than 100 physicians on how to responsibly treat patients with chronic pain. The program was so successful, Burstein said, that follow-up workshops are being planned.
• Horizon Health Services has more inpatient beds for those struggling with addiction. A $1 million state grant announced Tuesday will provide 25 more inpatient beds.
Burstein this week said 224 people have died this year, through last Thursday, from confirmed or suspected opioid and heroin overdoses. Last year, there were 256 deaths in Erie County.
The Tuesday morning press conference at Horizon Village Terrace House in Buffalo featured white tablecloths, flower arrangements and coffee and set a scene for optimism.
The word “hope” was uttered over and over as state and local officials heralded a $1 million contribution that will enable Horizon to expand its treatment center in Sanborn.
Not long ago, Horizon Health CEO Anne Constantino said her inpatient facility had a waiting list of more than 100 people.
“It felt like we were in a war without weapons,” she said.
But since 2014, Horizon has expanded from 50 to 170 inpatient beds, she said.
That includes 25 beds for young patients at Delta Village, which will open next month, she said. The latest announcement of money for 25 more beds will bring Horizon’s bed count to nearly 200 by next fall.
“That is absolutely a game changer,” Constantino said. “There is so much hope.”
Avi Israel is similarly optimistic.
The dogged activist and founder of the Save the Michaels of the World Foundation spoke at the outdoor news conference. He pointed to the building to his left.
In April 2011, he said, his son Michael was admitted for detox treatment in that building, then run by a different provider. But his son was released after just a few days because his insurance wouldn’t cover his stay. Michael killed himself a month later.
Michael loved books, Israel said. But his own story was never finished.
The page was torn at a bad chapter. But for many other people like him, these days, that bad chapter will be just one chapter in a longer story with a more hopeful ending.
“My son’s life – the book ended in the middle,” Israel said. “Other people are going to have the chance to finish with a good chapter.”
Bill Bly, a Horizon counselor who struggled with addiction in 1980, said his youngest son struggled with prescription painkiller addiction at age 20. He’s had a front-row seat to the terrifying nature of addiction, he said. But now, he said, he counsels recovering addicts who have once again embraced bigger life dreams.
“As long as there is life, there is hope,” he said. “We must never forget that.”
As State Sen. Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, listened to Bly, he found it hard not to choke up. He said he knew dozens of people in his South Buffalo community who suffered from the ravages of opioid addiction, including one man in his early 30s who got hooked on opioid painkillers after being in a car accident.
A few years ago, he stabbed himself to death, Kennedy said.
“A lot has changed since then,” he said. “We have come a long way.”
Crisis Services CEO Jessica Pirro said that in the first 24 hours of the new Addiction Line, five callers were directly referred to detoxification services, 23 to outpatient providers and six to inpatient services. Calls have tapered off since the first day, but the phones still ring steadily, she said.
“I think there is more hope in the sense that there are more people actively working towards solutions,” Pirro said. “That in turn provides people with more hope and safety.”