At least 21 people died of suspected opioid overdoses in the past 10 days, perhaps caused by a powerful drug similar to fentanyl, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Thursday.
“This is a tremendous increase in deaths from previous weeks,” Poloncarz said in a statement on Twitter.
The deaths occurred since Dec. 19, and the county medical examiner is conducting toxicology tests to confirm the cases, he said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid painkiller usually reserved for cancer patients that acts similar to the way heroin does, except it’s much stronger.
Large quantities of counterfeit drugs containing fentanyl are coming into the United States from labs that produce more powerful designer versions for sale on the street. The Drug Enforcement Agency earlier this year released a report on the “global threat” of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin. The drug is considered particularly dangerous because it takes only a small dose to be lethal.
Poloncarz said the suspected fentanyl version in the latest overdose deaths is known as 3-methyl fentanyl.
As of early December, the Erie County Department of Health was reporting 230 opioid deaths so far in 2016, with 94 more suspected cases.