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Opioid deaths decrease, but leaders want changes

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Monroe County Sheriff's Office
The Monroe County Heroin Task Force tracks the location of local opioid overdoses. In this 2019 map, each blue dot represents a non-fatal overdose. Each red dot is fatal.

Deaths in Monroe County from opioid overdoses decreased in 2019 for the second straight year, according to data released this week by the county’s heroin task force.

The numbers are preliminary and usually differ slightly from the official tally from the county medical examiner’s office that comes out later in the year. Still, they offer a glimpse into a changing tide in an epidemic that’s claimed more than 300,000 lives nationwide, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In 2017, opioid overdoses were responsible for more deaths in the county than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

“This is a crisis that was in the making for a decade,” said county Sheriff Todd Baxter. “Most of us turned a blind eye to these families and these folks who went through this addictive cycle.”

Baxter said his department has moved away from a traditional law enforcement approach. Now, he said, law enforcement officers are working as much on education and prevention of addiction as they are on arresting drug dealers.

Still, he won’t use the word “success” to describe their efforts.

“Unfortunately, the stats are human souls,” he said. “You’ll never declare victory, or even success, when those families are going through what they’re going through.”

Baxter said much of the county’s opioid action plan has been helpful in reducing the death toll, and it’s rallied the combined efforts of people in law enforcement, public health and advocacy. But he also said there’s a piece missing: a leader.

“We’re starting to go in the same direction, right? But I still am pleading for a -- you know, someone to coordinate all these different, wonderful players,” Baxter said.

Newly inaugurated County Executive Adam Bello said he will add that position to the county’s workforce, though he’s not yet sure what the job title will be.

“There’s nobody here in county government, in my view -- despite the fact that everybody’s doing really good work -- there’s nobody -- there doesn’t seem to be anybody in charge,” Bello said.

Bello has also called for Monroe County to revamp its approach to addiction treatment and recovery to mirror that of Erie County, where hospitals prescribe drugs to ward off cravings for patients who come in under opioid withdrawal and refer those patients to substance use treatment programs within days.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said earlier this year that he is starting to “see the light at the end of the tunnel” of the epidemic.

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