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Erie County's opioid crisis: 6 viewpoints from the trenches

The opioid epidemic has seen 53 people die of suspected overdoses in Erie County over the first 37 days of this year.

And it's showing no sign of abating.

More than 200 people gathered Friday at Hilbert College to hear about the issue. The messages conveyed came from the medical community, treatment providers and people who've personally dealt with addiction.

Here's some of what they had to say:

Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County health commissioner: 

The death toll continues to remain high in the county and the Medical Examiner's Office's toxicology lab is overwhelmed, not only by all the laboratory tests, but also because of new derivatives of the types of fentanyl - the drug that's much more potent than heroin - that have hit the street. "When somebody buys a bag or a pouch of white powder on the street, you have no way to know what's really in it. And it's really like playing  Russian roulette," she said. Hepatitis C is one of the health consequences seen in people who inject drugs, like heroin, and it kills more people annually in the United States than HIV/AIDS, she said.

Brittany Turner, recovering addict:

This Lancaster High School graduate spent seven years struggling with her addiction. She was arrested several times and said she'd been to almost every rehabilitation, detox and outpatient clinic in Western New York. Eventually, facing federal prison time, she was mandated to a long-term treatment center, which helped her kick her addiction. People should remain focused on what's working in dealing with the opioid crisis, Turner said. She likened the effort to overcome addiction to putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle. "It's amazing what can happen when you pick up only one piece at a time," she said.

Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr., chief federal judge of the Western District of New York:

The scope of the problem is vast, with more people dying from overdoses and illegal drugs in the United States than from traffic accidents, Geraci told the audience. There are an estimated 2.1 million opioid addicts in this country and it threatens all aspects of the community. The disease of addiction "does not discriminate," he said. The judge, who told the story of a man who was once in front of him as a defendant who later became an addiction counselor, said a collaborative effort is the only way the community can achieve success. "The issue has been drawn out from the shadows," he said. "It's OK now to talk about this problem. It's OK now to care about those who are addicted to these drugs."

Tom McCarthy, Buffalo Police video surveillance unit:

The former Erie County Sheriff's deputy got a prescription for Percocet after injuring his knee during an arrest while working a Buffalo Bills game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. He soon became dependent on the drug and then addicted. He got laid off from the sheriff's department during the 2006 county budget crisis, had his wedding engagement end three weeks before his wedding and then lost his job with the Department of Justice in Pennsylvania. But he got into a long-term, inpatient treatment program and has been in recovery three years. He thanked a number of people who he said helped him overcome his addiction, telling the crowd that if he could do it, anyone could. "I am not special," he said. "I was determined."

Dr. Richard Blundell, vice chair of addiction medicine at the University at Buffalo:

The crisis really began with the amount of drugs prescribed by doctors for pain, Blundell said. These drugs were also heavily marketed by pharmaceutical companies. Those who use prescription pain medications are unaware of how at risk they are. He's seen police officers, lawyers, dentists, teachers and physicians who became addicts. "Once these drugs have their hooks in your brain, it's hard to walk away," he said.

Julie Gutkowski, Spectrum Health and Human Services:

Many types of treatment for addiction are available in Western New York, but many people face external barriers like transportation, child care needs or insurance limitations that prevent them from getting into treatment, Gutkowski said. Individuals also face barriers within themselves. Treatment needs to be individualized for those suffering from addiction. "There is no one-size fits all option for treatment," she said.


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