Fear of COVID-19 is exacting a toll in other ways


BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–They’re being called the “uncounted casualties” of the coronavirus pandemic–the growing drug overdoses, suicides, and mental health disorders stemming from the worldwide health crisis.

It is a concern of health officials, mental health professionals, and even law enforcement:  people sheltering in place, keeping their social distances, avoiding human contact, and turning to drugs–deadly drugs–and it is becoming an epidemic within the pandemic.

Just this week, three people were found dead in a North Tonawanda apartment on Oliver Street and detectives suspect they died of drug overdoses. Authorities in Albany reported 30 overdoses in a 24-hour period.

Federal prosecutors say, just in the three months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, fatal overdoses in Erie County have tripled each month.

For the first 5 months of 2020, in Niagara County overdoses, both fatal and non-fatal, have jumped by about 50 percent over the same period last year.

Accorsding to authorities, many of those overdoses are people alone, shut-in to protect themselves from the deadly virus, and afraid to seek out treatment for fear of catching the virus.

Health officials are also urging users to find new ways of seeking help. Erie County Health Commssioner Dr. Gale Burstein suggested drug users engage partners or an Internet-based support group called “Never Use Alone,” that has an app.

“You can call that number and tell them you are going to be using, and they will call you back in 5 minutes. If nobody picks up then they will call 911 and activate somebody to come and save your life. Also the app works the same way.”

Laura Kelemen, Niagara County’s Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services told us, with Niagara’s 22 percent unemployment rate, the highest in New York, it is a sure trigger for drug abuse.

“Substance abuse can happen to anybody. Recognizing right now that the environment we are living in is a trigger for folks, and there isn’t any shame in asking for help.”

But she told us there is help, there is hope, and recovery is possible–you just have to reach out. Burstein said there are several agencies in the area that can provide users with Narcan, or an opioid substitute, though it would be difficult to administer by yourself.

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