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Erie County bucking opioid trend as overdose deaths drop to 3-year low

The number of Erie County residents who died last year from opioid overdoses fell by 17 percent, bucking a state and national trend, according to statistics released Friday.

A total of 251 people died of overdoses in 2017, the lowest number of the deaths over the past three years, according to the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office.

Local health experts point to the collaboration by local law enforcement, physicians groups, hospitals, government and community agencies, and competing private medical and addiction treatment providers in addressing the overdose crisis as a primary reason for the decline.

"This is not the case in most of the country," said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein. "Their overdose numbers are all increasing."

Though it's been known that the number of suspected and confirmed overdose deaths for 2017 would be lower than the year before, the final confirmation of all cases for last year found the numbers had fallen even more sharply than expected.

The county's 17 percent drop in its drug fatality numbers stands in contrast to a 7 percent increase in drug fatalities statewide, and a 12 percent increase across the country, according to data the county shared from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage increases are even higher when looking at deaths due to fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, the biggest killer of opioid drug users locally and nationally.

"While even one fatality from opioids is one too many, this shows that our ongoing efforts to fight the opioid epidemic in Erie County are working and that we are heading in the right direction," said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. "Unfortunately, the epidemic is still rising in other parts of New York and in states located throughout the country, so it is important to stay focused locally and continue to work with our community partners and our residents on addressing this public health issue."

Of those who died in Erie County last year, 53 percent were residents living in suburban and rural areas. Those at the highest risk of dying are in in their 20s and 30s, though the Medical Examiner's Office numbers show a decrease in those age groups. By contrast, the number of people dying of overdoses in their 50s is growing.

Based on the number of suspected and confirmed opioid deaths for the first five months of this year, Burstein said she's optimistic the overall downward trend in opioid deaths will continue. So far this year, the Medical Examiner's Office has reported 117 suspected and confirmed deaths.

Burstein pointed to a number of efforts to curb overdose deaths that have been making an impact, including:

  • Training more than 21,000 first responders and residents in the use of the rescue drug known by the brand name Narcan.
  • Use of the local 24-hour Addiction Hotline (831-7007).
  • Greater and faster access to addiction treatment medication such as buprenophine, best known by the brand name Suboxone.
  •  The work of the Opioid Epidemic Task Force, which shares and coordinates efforts across all stakeholders, including first responders, community members and treatment providers.

County leaders also talked about newer efforts taking off this year to continue to address the drug epidemic, including:

  • New screening and treatment referral protocols being adopted by adolescent, adult and OB-GYN physicians with the help of grant money.
  • The expansion of a pilot program that has peer counselors follow up with individuals who have been rescued with Narcan by police and immediately connecting them to treatment.
  • The opening of two methadone clinics in Amherst and Orchard Park.
  • Promotion of the Addiction Hotline, including a billboard campaign to squash the stigma of addiction and encourage drugs users to seek help.

"We have to do better," Burstein said. "We want to have zero overdose deaths."

The final 2017 overdose death numbers for Erie County came out just a day after the Seneca Nation of Indians pointed to the overdose deaths of at least 20 members in a new lawsuit against the nation's opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Like the recent suits filed by Erie County, the Town of Amherst and others, the Seneca suit accuses the companies of using false and deceptive marketing to grossly understate the risks of opioids.

"The opioid epidemic did not happen by mistake," the Senecas said in their court papers.

The suit against Purdue Pharma, Cephalon Inc. and others accuses the companies of engaging in a racketeering enterprise that relied on fraud to increase corporate profits.

The Seneca Nation is seeking an unspecified amount in damages and the creation of an "abatement fund" to help finance the treatment and rehabilitation of Senecas suffering from addiction.

The lawsuit also points to a recent survey of Senecas and the large majority – 72 percent – who consider the opioid and heroin epidemic to be the No. 1 problem facing their community.

Staff reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this story.

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