When more than 300 people died of opioid-related drug overdoses in 2016, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz called it an epidemic that would take a decade to resolve.
But with changes in combating and treating addiction in Erie County over the past few years, Poloncarz now says the public health crisis may be declared over as early as next year.
"I am not yet ready to declare the public health crisis over, but I do see a light at the end of the tunnel," he said Monday. "We have gone through the worst. There is no doubt about it."
As of July 25, the county has reported 90 confirmed and suspected opioid-related deaths. That compares with 191 cases for all of 2018 and 301 fatalities three year ago. While it's too soon to know what the death toll will be for all of 2019, it should be lower than last year, Poloncarz said.
Addiction treatment advocates stressed a big difference between the overdose fatality crisis, which is on the decline, and the addiction crisis, which they say is on the rise. Gretchen Fierle, a board member with Save the Michaels and a founder of the opiate awareness program "Painkillers Kill," called Poloncarz's statement "disturbing" and "dangerous."
"It gives the perception that the crisis is over, when the addiction crisis that exists is getting even worse," she said. "Just because more people aren’t dying doesn’t mean more people aren’t getting sick."
She added that suggesting the opioid crisis may soon be over could result in people deciding it is no longer necessary to invest the money and resources to the fight a serious and ongoing battle against addiction.
Poloncarz said the issue with addiction is not going away. But he and his health and mental health commissioners cited the coordinated efforts by the county and its community partners to provide more immediate and follow-up treatment options, prevent overprescribing, and to train the public and law enforcement on how to keep more people with addiction from becoming a death statistic.
"We don’t have people demanding access to treatment as they were before, because they’re getting it," Poloncarz said.
The Erie County Opioid Task Force was created in 2016 when county leaders feared the death toll could exceed 500 deaths a year, based on the spike in fatalities from 2014 to 2015. That group brought together health care providers, law enforcement and first responders, health insurance executives, victim advocates and government officials.
Since then, the number of fatalities has continued to fall.
Mental Health Commissioner Michael Ranney pointed out that far more local inpatient and outpatient treatment options are available to those with drug addiction than ever before. Twice as many Erie County residents receive buprenorphine treatment, like Suboxone, than they did in 2014. More methadone clinics and inpatient treatment beds are also available.
He also noted that more police officers are now trained to carry the rescue drug naloxone, better known as Narcan.
Health Commissioner Gale Burstein referred to efforts by the county to follow up with those treated for drug overdoses by police who may initially decline treatment. She also referred a major change in how emergency departments work to ensure that those with addiction have immediate access to treatment as part of the Buffalo MATTERS program.
Both the Buffalo MATTERS program, developed through the University at Buffalo, and the task force work being done by the county have gained national attention.
Save the Michaels founder Avi Israel said the county and other community organizations are working together to ensure there's a safety net to keep people alive and in recovery. Save the Michaels has moved 600 people into drug treatment in the first half of this year alone, he said.
While the decline in deaths is undeniable, he said, the need to address the issue of addiction is greater than ever. He also said there's no way to know what drug will be killing people next.
"Everything today is laced with fentanyl," he said. "I don’t know what the drug will be next year."