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OVERDOSES Our county’s other health crisis

The OBSERVER’s View

While most of us have been preoccupied with keeping COVID-19 at bay, the scourge of illegal drugs continues to rear its ugly head.

Christine Schuyler, county public health commissioner, told county Board of Health members that the county averaged about 19 overdoses a month in 2019 for a total of about 230. Those numbers are increasing this year — 126 suspected drug overdoses in 2020, 46 in March alone. In April, 19 overdoses were reported, with four resulting in death. And in May, there have been 11 overdoses with no deaths recorded.

“Those are the ones reported through the overdose map system,” Schuyler told the board. “I think most anyone who works with this population knows that there are other overdoses that occur within our community that aren’t reported.”

Drugs sold on the streets are being laced heavily with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid several times more powerful than morphine. Fentanyl had largely been associated with heroin, but is now showing up in combination with cocaine and methamphetamine. Those combinations, in addition to the social isolation of COVID-19, is proving to be a powerful combination. Schuyler said many of the overdose cases are people who are known to be working on drug addiction recovery but are relapsing.

Add to all of that the continued inability to bring methadone treatment to Chautauqua County and you have a powderkeg just waiting to explode.

Road blocks have emerged to open methadone clinics in the county, leaving many trying to achieve sobriety traveling to Buffalo or Erie, Pa., for methadone. Sending patients to Buffalo or Erie costs more, and even worse is the reduced treatment schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Elizabeth Kidder, a member of the health board, said many of her patients went from going five times a week for treatment to three times a week during the pandemic. She said her patients described limited means of traveling and no social distancing within the methadone clinics.

It seems obvious that the next step in drug addiction treatment is a methadone clinic in Chautauqua County. That will be a difficult step given the state’s dire finances — a position that will trickle down to local governments. We note, though, a position Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken often during the COVID-19 pandemic. As recently as May 4, the governor has placed a high value on human life in discussions over reopening the state’s economy.

“To me, I say the cost of a human life is priceless, period,” he said in his May 4 press briefing.

If that is indeed true, then the governor and his administration need to find a way to place a methadone clinic in Chautauqua County.

Much like COVID-19, Chautauqua County has been relatively lucky that few have died from this spate of overdoses. We know that is not likely to continue forever.

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