Nearly 200 people died from opioid overdoses in Monroe County last year, according to data released Monday by the county medical examiner’s office.
That’s the first decrease since 2015, but it’s still 17 times as many overdose deaths as the county had in 2011, when it first started tracking the data.
Monroe County public health commissioner Michael Mendoza said one of the primary reasons for last year’s decline was likely the prevalence of overdose reversal drugs like naloxone, which is sold under the brand name Narcan.
“Our efforts to get naloxone into the hands of the general public to prevent an overdose from becoming fatal are proving to be fruitful,” Mendoza said.
Still, he said, it’s a short-term fix.
“We can Narcan our way through the acute crisis, and we’re slowly, hopefully, going in that direction, but we’re not going to Narcan our way through the underlying problems,” Mendoza said. “The problem of addiction – the disease of addiction – is not one that Narcan can fix.”
Mendoza said stigma toward addiction is built into the medical system. Too many doctors still view addiction as a character flaw, he said, and training that allows doctors to deliver the most effective addiction treatments is too burdensome.
For some older doctors in particular, medication-assisted treatment, which is considered the gold standard for treating addiction, runs counter to what they learned in medical school.
In the past, addiction treatment training was largely abstinence-based. Patients who were on prescription medication for addiction treatment could be removed from treatment if they used illegal drugs.
Now, the focus is on harm reduction. That means tolerating some risky behaviors by patients because they’re less dangerous than buying and using street drugs, especially in the era of fentanyl, which the medical examiner’s office implicated in more than 94% of overdose deaths last year.
Andrew DeLyser, who commanded the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office’s heroin task force last year, said overcoming stigma has been a focus in the law-enforcement community, too.
“The majority of overdoses, thank God, don’t end in death,” DeLyser said. “There’s a lot more nonfatal overdoses. We want people to feel comfortable that they can call 911 and report these overdoses and not worry about being arrested.”
When people feel comfortable talking to officers about addiction and drug use, it increases the chances of finding out where those drugs are coming from and arresting the dealers, DeLyser said.
Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley said in a statement that her office would continue to prosecute drug dealers for homicide charges and divert people struggling with addiction out of the criminal justice system and into recovery programs.