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Fatal opioid overdoses drop to lowest point since tracking began

Fatal opioid overdoses in Monroe County have held constant or decreased each month since October. But officials say it's too early to call it a trend.
Brett Dahlberg
Fatal opioid overdoses in Monroe County have held constant or decreased each month since October. But officials say it's too early to call it a trend.

Fatal opioid overdoses have either decreased or held constant in Monroe County each month since last October, according to the most recentdata from the county’s Heroin Task Force.

March saw the lowest number of fatal overdoses – six – since the county began tracking the data in January 2018.

County public health commissioner Michael Mendoza said the growing distribution of naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, is likely behind some of the drop in deaths. Naloxone can reverse an overdose, and Mendoza has been encouraging businesses and public facilities to train their staff in its use.

Local health care provider Trillium Health has also been keeping afull schedule of naloxone training sessions.

Mendoza said the numbers are promising, but it’s too early to find a pattern in the data.

“It would be great to say things are getting better. But I hesitate to say that, because I have a relatively high standard as far as calling it a trend, and I’d like to see this persist for longer,” he said.

Chief Deputy Michael Fowler with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office echoed those concerns. “I hesitate to really say it’s stabilized yet,” he said of the overdose epidemic. “But we are encouraged.”

Last year’s fatal overdose total had surpassed 40 by the end of March. This year’s total: 24.

Both Mendoza and Fowler expressed concern about the potential for naloxone to mask the extent of the opioid epidemic. Its use is not required to be reported to authorities, so “if someone overdoses in a private place, and naloxone is administered and the individual is revived, we may never know about it,” Fowler said.

That means law enforcement and health officials are working with imperfect data. But Mendoza said in some ways, that doesn’t matter. “We know that Narcan shows success. We know that it saves lives. We don’t need more evidence of that.”

Mendoza said now that naloxone is more widely available in Monroe County, his next push is for the expansion of medication-assisted treatment. “That’s our next frontier,” he said.

Medication-assisted treatment pairs a drug like buprenorphine, which staves off the worst symptoms of withdrawal, with long-term counseling to help people find healthy ways to recover from addiction.

The treatment is gaining currency across the medical community, but itremains controversial in the addiction treatment world, where 12-step programs still encourage people to aim for abstinence instead of using buprenorphine to quell their cravings.

“It takes time,” Mendoza said. “But we’re conducting classes on MAT left and right these days.

“People are coming around,” he said. “More and more, people are coming around.”

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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