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Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force meets to refocus efforts to prevent opioid poisoning deaths

Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force members met at SUNY Erie Community College North Campus today for its first in-person meeting since 2020.

Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein presented data that outlined the troubling, tragic increase in opioid-related overdose deaths in 2022. In 2021, the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed 286 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2021, compared to 306 deaths with 2 probable deaths in 2022. 2022’s total is higher than the previous peak of 301 deaths in 2016. Through April 28, 2023, ECDOH has confirmed 51 opioid-related overdose deaths with another 94 probable cases – an unofficial total of 145 deaths that unfortunately will increase this year.

Opioid-related deaths associated with fentanyl and cocaine have increased dramatically over the past six years. 57% of opioid-related deaths in 2022 involved cocaine, compared to less than 20% of cases in 2016.

The increased proportion of deaths involving cocaine indicates a different population of people at risk for opioid poisoning – individuals who use cocaine occasionally or irregularly. Narcan can reverse the effects of an opioid poisoning. Text 716-225-5473 with your address to receive free Narcan by mail.

United States Attorney for the Western District of New York Trini Ross addressed the group with an update on law enforcement activities to combat drug trafficking and distribution.

“We’re trying to reframe the problem from overdoses to poisoning,” Ross said. “Working together, law enforcement and all other entities will make a difference. We have to keep pushing forward … This (fentanyl) is poison, and we need to start treating it like that.”

Representatives from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration gave a summary of how and where drugs are entering the United States – part of a $500 billion industry. They also presented data on the lethality of pills and fake pills seized by law enforcement.

Representatives from NY MATTERS explained its referral platform that links patients to care within 24-48 hours. The MATTERS team has also expanded its harm reduction outreach. They have plans for 15 vending machines that contain fentanyl test strips and naloxone (Narcan). They have also distributed more than 440,000 fentanyl test strips to organizations and individuals.

With federal funding, ECDOH is starting a program to train first responders on the opioid epidemic and Narcan administration. ECDOH is working with all 97 fire companies to provide access and training. Through this effort, ECDOH will provide leave-behind materials for first responders at the time of overdose or as appropriate. “By leaving materials behind, we’re working to engage clients in a way that is more effective,” said Project Coordinator Jennifer Garrigan. ECDOH is also adding direct links to NY MATTERS at outreach events through technology.

“You are establishing a healing pathway for families,” said Deb Smith, chair of the Family and Consumer Support and Advocacy Workgroup. She emphasized underlying issues of stigma against and lack of compassion for people who use drugs, and that these deaths in our community are preventable. “No one deserves to be poisoned,” she explained. “We, as families, feel that we should have to wait for anything to develop a flexible plan to change lives.”

The full presentation from this meeting is available online.


Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH), Opiate Epidemic Task Force:

NOTE FOR MEDIA: Words Matter – Terms to use, terms to avoid and why


The Harm Reduction Workgroup is continuing naloxone trainings and medication deployment conducted by the department at unique sites including bars, festivals, concert venues. A Workplace Committee is forming to plan education and activities with local employers.