WXXI AM News

Rochester-area opioid deaths increase again

Jul 3, 2018

Data released by the Monroe County Medical Examiner shows opioid-related deaths keep rising in the Rochester region.

The death toll from heroin and fentanyl climbed for five of the last six years, from 11 in 2011 to 287 in 2017, according to the report, and it has more than doubled since 2015.

“We’re failing,” said Mark Assini, the town supervisor in Gates. “Our methods and our efforts have to be doubled and changed, and we have to get our arms around this. Right now we have not.”

Data from the Monroe County medical examiner's office show 2017 was the deadliest year yet in the ongoing opioid epidemic.

The epidemic does not discriminate by age, with the oldest victim last year a person under 20, and the oldest an 82-year-old.

Monroe County public health commissioner Michael Mendoza said the county’s opioid action plan, implemented in January, has all the components necessary to combat the epidemic regionally. “We just need to continue what we’re doing,” he said.

The plan’s creation included medical experts and law enforcement officials, and it involves training people to use naloxone, known by its brand name Narcan, to reverse an overdose, suing opioid manufacturers for misleading consumers, challenging the medical community to improve treatments for opioid abuse, and expanding educational outreach to discourage people from using opioids in the first place.

Assini said hospitals should be doing more, though. “Not one single hospital has opened up one single bed in the middle of the worst crisis in our lifetime for this opioid epidemic,” he said.

Local hospitals said they are either working on a plan to open up more beds for detox treatment, or they are already full and cannot fit any more patients. “Given capacity constraints, we do not envision adding beds dedicated to detox services at Strong or Highland hospitals,” the University of Rochester Medical Center said in a statement released in March.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s office said it is working to address the use of illegal opioids as both a law enforcement issue and a public health problem. Undersheriff Korey Brown said the department is connecting with a variety of other organizations and agencies. “We’re doing more enforcement, we’re doing preventive work, we’re doing more treatment, and we’re trying to get the courts involved,” he said.

What’s missing, Brown said, is better tracking of deaths due to illegal opioids “so we’re not finding out six months later what the numbers are for 2017,” and more educational outreach. Noting that the average age of death from overdose last year was 38, Brown said more guidance for adults was important. “How are we addressing 38-year-olds? We have D.A.R.E. officers that are addressing people in schools, but who’s addressing the parents?”

The data do not include deaths attributed to legally obtained prescription opioids, which Mendoza said have not been as lethal locally as illegal opioids. It does show a year-on-year slowing in the rate of increase in deaths from illegal opioids, though health officials say it’s too early to tell whether the crisis has peaked.

Brown said the best way to slow the epidemic is to stop people from trying opioids even once. “Once you try it,” he said, “it’s too late.”