A new toxicologist, scene investigator, and autopsy and forensic lab technicians are expected to soon join the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office in an effort to better track and address the opioid overdose crisis killing residents at a rate of one per day.
The Erie County Legislature approved the new positions Thursday as part of a larger effort to spend an additional $1 million this year from county savings to confront the overdose deaths.
"I'm proud of what we're doing here," said Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. "I think we've all worked together in a collaborative way."
The Legislature also approved spending $112,721 to purchase 3,000 more potent versions of Narcan, an overdose rescue drug credited with saving many local lives.
Currently, the Erie County Health Department distributes the generic, 2-milliliter version of Narcan to first responders and civilians. The generic nalaxone is provided free of charge through a partnership with the New York State Department of Health. But because of the high potency of opioid drugs sold and used in Erie County, emergency personnel often find they need to use multiple doses to revive overdose victims.
The more powerful 4-milliliter version of Narcan recently supplied to Buffalo police and fire personnel in areas with the highest number of overdoses showed better responses from overdose victims, according to the county Health Department.
Meanwhile, the Health Department is also taking advantage of the funding windfall to improve staffing at its Medical Examiner's Office, which employs far fewer staffers than either Monroe or Onondaga counties, according to health officials.
With the additional staff, administrators say, the Medical Examiner's Office will continue to conduct full autopsies on suspected overdoses cases, address lengthy waits for toxicology testing and assist law enforcement in pursuing homicide charges against drug dealers who can be linked to fatal overdoses.
The Legislature also approved setting aside $500,000 in grant money available to treatment providers and other community agencies. They can apply for the grants to improve access to treatment.
The Department of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections had sought funding to hire staff so that Holding Center and Correctional Facility inmates can gain access to drug treatment after they leave jail. But members of the Legislature majority decided to delay that funding in the short term because of confusion over the need for three additional positions.
Several Democratic legislators objected to the delay in hiring the additional staff. Among them was Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, who initially proposed spending $1 million from county savings to address the opioid crisis.
He accused Lorigo of hijacking his broad proposal to give $1 million to the Health Department and said the "watered down" proposal unanimously approved by the Legislature could have been done more simply and quickly under his version.
"This is just another delay," he said.