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Overdose deaths decrease, but still remain high


The good news: the number of people in Monroe County who died from opioid overdoses decreased last year. The bad news: the number was 195 people, and that's much higher than it was even five years ago.

The Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office released its annual statistics on overdose deaths this morning. And 2018 marked the first time since 2015 that there was a decline in the number of opioid overdose deaths, Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Nadia Granger reported. The 195 deaths represent an 11 percent decrease from the 220 deaths confirmed in 2017, she said in a press release.

By contrast, between 2011 and 2013, the county had a total of 78 opioid overdose deaths, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.

Granger said that the overdoses represent 22 percent of the total Monroe County deaths investigated by her office in 2018.

Most counties across the country are seeing a modest improvement in opioid overdose deaths, Dr. Michael Mendoza, the county's commissioner of public health, said during an interview today. Nationally and locally, efforts to get the overdose reversal drug naloxone into the hands of the public are helping to prevent overdoses from becoming fatal, Mendoza said.

The Monroe County Sheriff's Office's Heroin Task Force recorded 1,133 opioid overdoses in 2018, the first full year it tracked the data across county police agencies, according to a press release sent out this afternoon. Most of those overdoses were not fatal.

Fentanyl was present in 94.4 percent of the 2018 overdose deaths, compared to 91.8 percent of the 2017 deaths, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.  Heroin and morphine — the body converts heroin into morphine — were detected in only 30.8 percent of the 2018 cases, a decrease from 42.3 percent  in 2017.

"This is really turning out to be a fentanyl epidemic," Dr. Michael Mendoza, the county's commissioner of public health, said during an interview today. "The vast majority of the fatalities are involving fentanyl."

Among the overdose victims: 82.1 percent were white, 13.3 percent were black, 7.7 percent were Hispanic, and 4.6 percent were other races or ethnicities, according to the Medical Examiner's Office. Males accounted for 69.7 percent of the overdoses and females accounted for 30. 3 percent.

Mendoza said it's "gratifying to see the numbers headed in the right direction," but the number of overdose deaths is still too high. He emphasized the importance of education and of fighting the stigma around the disease of addiction.

"I’ve seen patients in the office who have struggled through addiction for many years, and only recently have begun to bring it up with their health care provider," Mendoza says. "And they tell me, you know, ‘This is really hard for me to talk about, because for so long I’ve been made to feel like I’m not entitled to the same amount of treatment and attention as people with other illnesses.'”

Mendoza stressed the importance of continuing to increase access to the overdose-reversal drug Narcan and to link people with recovery services as well as medication assisted treatment.  He also said the community needs to focus on addiction and expand efforts aimed at prevention and at building greater capacity for treatment within primary care. He also said it's important for more physicians to get trained in providing medication-assisted treatment, which involves prescribing Suboxone or buprenorphine.

"We’re being asked to do fewer and fewer Narcan presentations," Mendoza said. "My hope is that that’s because people know about it more, and there’s more awareness. That’s still a focus, but we’re going to keep focusing on where I think we do need to do more work, which is educating my colleagues in medicine on medication-assisted treatment, so I’ve been doing suboxone training in the community."

This story has been updated to include remarks from Monroe County Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza. WXXI health reporter Brett Dahlberg contributed to this story.