BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Opioid deaths in Erie County appear to be getting worse, and leaders in the county described what they believe to be behind this in a conference Thursday morning.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz emphasized one of the main issues as fentanyl-laced drugs, particularly cocaine laced with the deadly, addictive narcotic.

“What we’re seeing now is a complete morphing of this issue,” Poloncarz said, describing how it has changed with an analogy — the county executive described the problem as not being like an athlete getting addicted to prescribed opioids after suffering an injury anymore.

Poloncarz also described it this way; longtime cocaine users are dying because their drugs now contain fentanyl.

The County Executive shared a startling statistic on this — more than 50 percent of the 2022 opioid overdose deaths in Erie County were generally a mixture of cocaine and fentanyl.

“That is not something we saw in 2014, 15, 16,” he said. “It was pure heroin, or a heroin mixture with fentanyl, or, what was often the case, just somebody dying of an overdose of prescription drugs.”

The overall numbers for 2022 aren’t looking good. 298 deaths in Erie County have been confirmed as the result of opioid overdoses, and there are still 20 probable cases. Poloncarz says it’s likely that at least 10 will be determined to be opioid overdoses.

For reference, there were 286 in 2021.

“We are going to see the largest number of overdose deaths as the result of an opiate overdose probably ever,” Poloncarz said, noting that the highest number of opioid overdose deaths seen in the county thus far occurred in 2016, when there were 301.

Things don’t appear to be getting any better this year, either. Poloncarz says from the start of the year through March 13, there appears to have been a combined 97 confirmed and probable opioid overdose deaths in Erie County — twice the number of opioid-related deaths as the same time period last year.

In the first two and a half months of 2023, we’ve already seen what could possibly be one-third of the opioid overdose deaths that happened last year overall, the County Executive said.

“There’s been more than one death a day,” Poloncarz said.

Many people died of an opioid overdose in or near their homes in 2022, he said. Specifically, this describes roughly three-quarters of those deaths.

Also in attendance for Thursday’s conference were District Attorney John Flynn, Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein and Sheriff John Garcia.

“Fentanyl is killing people,” Dr. Burstein said while showing a series of graphs, which included information on drugs found at crime scenes.

Erie County says the proportion of deaths for people in their 40s and 50s has gone up since 2018.

“Between 2018 and 2022, the proportion of Black persons in opioid overdose death data increased from 10 percent to 28 percent – also signaling a population that is overrepresented in case totals,” Erie County said. “At the same time, the proportion of White persons in these data decreased from 79 percent to 68 percent; this population is underrepresented in case totals based on U.S. Census population estimates.”

A common misconception is that drugs are just coming in from Mexico, but DA Flynn says that’s not the case, noting that more are starting to come in from Canada, too, which he noted as a problem for Buffalo, a border city, and the state of New York, in general.

Flynn has described opioids as a “silent killer.”

Cocaine and fentanyl aren’t the only things killing people. Dr. Burstein also spoke of something she says has become a big problem in Philadelphia, and is now starting to be seen here — an animal tranquilizer called xylazine. Although it is not an opioid itself, xylazine was detected in 13 of Erie County’s opioid-related deaths in 2022.

“This drug, often injected, is increasingly found added to illicit drugs, and causes major toxicity in humans,” Erie County says.

Xylazine is resistant to Narcan, which typically reverses the effects of opioids, and can result in disfiguring skin ulcers, amputations, comas and cardiac failure.

(Above: UB associate professor Dr. Josh Lynch talks xylazine on Wake Up)

Dr. Burstein says the county is starting to see more methamphetamine in the community, too.

“There is no time to waste here,” Dr. Burstein said. “As a community, we have done a solid job in establishing evidence-based treatment and harm reduction strategies. Stigma around substance use disorder remains a massive barrier between people and the treatment that will help them manage this chronic disease.”

Fentanyl test strips are available for free through Erie County, and Dr. Burstein encourages people who choose to use drugs to not use them alone and test their drugs for the commonly fatal narcotic.


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Evan Anstey is an Associated Press Award, JANY Award and Emmy-nominated digital producer who has been part of the News 4 team since 2015. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.