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Baxter: Overdose deaths down in 2019 -- 'but we can't claim victory'

Mar 5, 2020

Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter discusses opioid overdose data for 2019 during news conference Thursday.
Credit Gino Fanelli/CITY Newspaper

Deaths from heroin in Monroe County have shrunk by a wide margin over the past two years, but users are still overdosing at roughly the same rate, according to new data from the county's Heroin Task Force.

In 2019, the county received 839 reports of opioid overdoses, 127 of which were fatal. Both figures represented a decrease from the previous year, when the county recorded 1,133 overdoses, 166 of which were fatal. Each year, roughly 15 percent of overdoses were deadly.

The number of annual fatal overdoses has decreased since 2016, and the rate has fallen. That year, the county had 329 reported overdoses, 169 of which resulted in death. In other words, roughly half of the overdoses that year were fatal.

The data was presented Thursday by Sheriff Todd Baxter, who is one of the leaders of the task force that formed in 2018.

Baxter did not claim victory for the task force, a coalition of law enforcement agencies, public safety officials, and nonprofits aimed at curbing the epidemic. He's also reluctant even to say the Sheriff's Office has done a "nice job."

"If we have just one red dot, how do we talk to a family member about success?" Baxter said. "The mission is no red dots."

As Baxter presented the data, he stood in front of a map showing two years' worth of overdoses throughout the county. The 1,972 blue dots for confirmed overdoses, 294 red dots for fatal overdoses.

"There's souls and beautiful people at the other end of this story, and we'll never stop fighting for them," Baxter said. "There is hope ... but we can't claim victory."

There are myriad factors at play, but the accessibility of naloxone, a drug that effectively halts an overdose, is a major factor. Baxter said the number of times naloxone has been used in Monroe County by the Sheriff Department or EMS is "elusive." Naloxone is the generic name for Narcan.

"It's the miracle drug of our lifetime," Baxter said. "Sometimes we get to the scene of an overdose that someone survived, and it might be two, three, four kits used before we even arrived."

Although nationwide overdose deaths are dropping, Monroe County's numbers are beating the national average. Between 2017 and 2018, the Centers for Disease Control reported a 4.1 percent drop in overdose deaths. Monroe County saw a 24.5 percent drop in that timeframe, followed by another 23.5 percent drop the following year.

The county is currently working on a new initiative to give overdose emergency kits, including naloxone, to families of overdose victims.

"We can't have enough Narcan out there right now," Baxter said.

Baxter credits naloxone and better law enforcement intelligence-gathering around overdoses for saving lives. District Attorney Sandra Doorley also credits aggressive prosecution of heroin dealers.

Since the launch of the task force, nine people have been convicted of criminally negligent homicide or a similar offense for selling drugs that resulted in an overdose death, Doorley said. Three more cases are pending.

"We can't arrest our way out of this, but we can certainly affect what's going on in our streets," Doorley said. "All of these arrests have resulted in an incredible seizure of dangerous drugs, money, and weapons."

Doorley said the goals are simple -- to help addicts by guiding them to treatment after arrest and to harshly punish dealers.

"Some people do sell small amounts in order to support their addiction, those are people we're treating as those with a substance abuse disorder, we're getting them help," Doorley said.

Baxter is adamant that the epidemic is far from over. Just this past weekend, there were four fatal overdoses in Monroe County, according to the Sheriff's Office. Comparably, the entire month of January saw six.

"Looking at the data, we've stabilized or quartered off the problem," Baxter said. "Now we have to strategically go in and solve, how do we take advantage of where we're at now instead of chasing our tails and trying to play catch-up?"

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at gfanelli@rochester-citynews.com.