Health Commissioner calls Nalaxone “bandaid” in ongoing opioid epidemic

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CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) – Heroin has touched so many lives in our community, and Wednesday, in honor of International Opioid Overdose Awareness Day, people are invited to share their stories of loss and grief.

Members of the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force plan to gather in the evening at the Erie County Emergency Services and Operations Center to remember those who have died, and to honor all of the first responders on the front lines of the fight.

“We know that they’re working very hard, harder than they ever have because of responding to these drug overdoses,: Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said.

Across our community, there’s been a huge push to try to fight the opioid epidemic on different levels. “This is really a multi-factorial problem,” Dr. Burstein explained. “So that’s why we have a task force in Erie County to try to address it, because we’re trying to pull together all of those different people who are in involved in those different factors to have us work together to try to bring down those numbers.”

That said, the numbers don’t always paint a full picture, so it’s hard to measure how well all of the efforts are working.

“We don’t have surveillance on the number of people that are using,” Dr. Burstein said.

Even the numbers they do have don’t tell the whole story. Earlier this year, for example, Erie County saw an average of 10 or 12 people dying each week from overdoses. Now, that’s down to 7 or 8 a week. But, Dr. Burstein points out, the deaths themselves are highly influenced by the products on the streets.

So, it’s hard to say whether the number of deaths are down because we’re not seeing so many deadly, tainted drugs in our area right now, or because fewer people are using, or because first responders have been able to prevent more deaths by bringing people back with the antidote nalaxone in time.

Emergency calls requiring first responders to administer nalaxone have certainly kept them busy with more and more every year, but the CEO of Twin City Ambulance, Bryan Brauner, says now, his company is finally starting to see some promising developments. “The trend’s been going up incrementally since maybe 2013 or so, but when we look at it in 2016, we saw a peak very early on in the year, with our high being some time around February, and a steady decline since.”

Brauner says in February, his crews had to respond to about 35 calls for overdoses. That number fell to 23 in March, and to 15 in July.

Even so, Twin City Ambulance crews are still often responding to the same patients and same houses over and over again. “There have definitely been some repetitive customers,” Brauner said. “We’re here to do a job. When you have somebody who’s overdosed, whether it’s their first time or their tenth time, the job is to treat the patient.”

The Erie County Health Commissioner says the fact that so many people have to be treated repeatedly with nalaxone shows that it is not the answer to the problem. “It’s a band-aid,” Dr. Burstein said. “It revives people and gives them a second chance at looking at an opportunity for recovery to get into treatment.”

“We need to, in my opinion, address whatever the underlying issue is that’s leading to use and abuse of these drugs,” Brauner agreed.

For now, the fight against overdose deaths continues, too.

An Overdose Awareness Day program, including a tree planting ceremony, will begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Erie County Emergency Services and Operations Center, at 3359 Broadway in Cheektowaga.

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