The Erie County Health Department is anticipating a significant increase in the number of deaths this year from heroin and other opiate overdoses.
Last year, 119 people died in Erie County as the result of such overdoses. So far this year, at least 34 deaths have been linked to heroin and opiate overdoses but with toxicology results pending in several cases, the death toll is expected to climb shortly. Health officials are anticipating a death toll by the end of 2015 which doubles last year's count.
It's putting a strain on both drug treatment providers and on law enforcers, the latter of which face the dual task of stopping drug trafficking while also sometimes saving the lives of overdose victims at the scene.
"With the increasing number of addictions and use of opioids such as heroin, even our treatment providers are being overwhelmed and saturated," said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein. "It's really difficult to get people into care, into long-term care."
But it's perhaps too easy, Burstein suggests, to gain access to narcotics which, if abused, can later lead to heroin use. She noted how physicians, under pressure by patients and health insurance providers which rate doctor care, are prescribing potent painkillers for even simple medical procedures, such as a tooth being pulled. It's a culture of 'pain-free' that is contributing to the problem.
"Health care providers want to rate well with these satisfaction surveys," Dr. Burstein said.
As for heroin, a significant part of the rising trend is the presence of fentanyl which is sometimes mixed in. Even a small amount of fentanyl can be lethal, says Dr. Burstein.
The health department's grim prediction coincides with a Wednesday night drug bust in Buffalo that resulted in the seizure of 2,100 bags of heroin. That raid was conducted jointly by Buffalo Police, Cheektowaga Police and the Erie County Sheriff's Department. Police charged 26-year-old Dellsean Hamilton with multiple drug and weapons counts.
Alan Rozansky, Chief of Narcotics for the Erie County Sheriff's Department, told WBFO that Hamilton already had charges against him in Cheektowaga before he was arrested in Buffalo.
Both police and health officials say that while the drugs are being dealt within the City of Buffalo, the customers - and the epidemic - transcend all local municipalities and demographics.
"I hope it's opening eyes of people in the suburbs and the areas we patrol," said Rozansky. "This is everywhere in Erie County. Anybody who thinks it isn't has their head in the sand."
Erie County has taken proactive steps to take on heroin addiction, such as equipping law enforcers with kits to treat overdose victims on site. Health officials say getting addicts into treatment programs, however, is easier said than done. Even those who survive overdoses may still go out in search of their next fix, because their body truly depends on it.
"It's not just a behavioral issue, it's really a physiologic issue," said Dr. Burstein. "Their body craves the substance. They would do anything to get it and risk everything, even their lives."