Despite extensive public efforts to treat addicts and arrest dealers, opioid overdoses have increased steadily for years, wreaking havoc on those caught in the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.
But so far this year, drug overdoses appear to be way down in Niagara County.
The Niagara County Sheriff's Department reported 165 overdoses as of July 10, including 14 who died. That puts the county on track for close to 313 overdoses for the entire year — about 35 percent lower than the 481 overdoses reported by sheriff's department last year.
If the trend of the past six months continue, the department would report about 26 or 27 overdose fatalities by year's end — about 40 percent fewer than the 44 overdose deaths of 2018, as compiled by the sheriff's department.
“It’s a little bit encouraging, but we still have a long way to go," Sheriff Jim Voutour said.
However, the sheriff's department data is likely undercounted.
Capt. Scott Lombardo said the department, which began compiling overdose statistics in May 2017, does not receive information on all overdoses, including those who were treated at a hospital or by New York State Police. The data includes reporting by all county law enforcement agencies, as it did in 2018, according to Lombardo.
It is of course possible the trends of the past six months do not continue. Spikes in overdoses later in the year could reverse the progress of the past six months. Police say opioid overdoses sometimes spike when mid- or high-level drug dealers circulate especially powerful batches of opioids, often because it's laced with fentanyl.
And it's possible the decline simply means more overdose victims of the past six months were taken straight to a hospital or attended to by a state trooper.
"It's difficult to target an exact reason for the significant drop in overdoses and fatalities that we're seeing in 2019," said Legislator Becky Wydysh, chair of the Niagara County Opioid Task Force.
Wydysh said overdoses are down by nearly 50 percent from this point of last year (the sheriff's office could not supply breakdowns on when overdoses occurred last year as of press time). She attributed the drop to the efforts of local treatment providers and law enforcement, as well as the opioid task force.
In recent years, county agencies have launched a public awareness campaign on opioid addiction and established a treatment program at the jail. Meanwhile, treatment providers have expanded and the Niagara County Drug Task Force has continued to target accused dealers.
Wydysh also cited a shift in public perception, as more view addiction as a disease rather than a crime or moral failing.
"That shift can make a very big difference in people seeking out and receiving the various treatment options available to them," Wydysh said.
It's unclear whether the decline is part of a wider trend. A recent study led by the Harvard Medical School predicted the epidemic will peak sometime between 2022 and 2025, with between 81,700 and nearly 200,000 dying each year of drug abuse.
But the latest data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control appears to show overdose deaths leveling off — and possibly even beginning to decline. The CDC reported that between November 2017 and November 2018, nearly 67,000 died of drug use, down more than 5 percent from the almost 71,000 overdose deaths reported from November 2016 to 2017.
The drop is even greater in the Mid-West and Northeast — areas that were among the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic in recent years. In New York State, predicted overdoses dropped 9.4 percent between November in 2017 and in 2018, from 2,632 to 2,385.
"The overall feeling is we're very encouraged by the numbers," Wydysh said. "One death is too many, but we won't quit working. This will encourage us to keep working harder."