According to a new report from Rochester-based Common Ground Health — formerly the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency — 54 percent of people who overdosed in the nine-county Finger Lakes region in 2016 had a prescription for opioids in the previous two years.

For non-heroin opioid overdoses, the relationship was even stronger — 68 percent of people who overdosed had prior prescriptions for painkillers. The numbers are from a study period of 2014 to 2016.

“As opioid deaths and overdoses continue to devastate many in our region, it is critical that we better understand how individuals are becoming dependent,” said Albert Blankley, director of research and analytics for Common Ground Health. “These data show that for some individuals, prescription medications may contribute to or trigger their problem.”

The analysis confirmed what anecdotal evidence has pointed to for years — that many residents struggling with addiction began their opioid dependence with a prescription from their doctor.

“Our perception of risk campaign discusses the dangers of prescription drug abuse, which can lead to more dangerous opioids and other drug abuse,” said Petrea Rea, coordinator of the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Ontario County, an initiative of the Partnership for Ontario County. “Our focus is on building awareness through education of youth, young adults and community members on important steps to take to prevent addiction.”

Common Ground Health’s report tracked overdose deaths and opioid-driven emergency room visits for 2016. For that year Ontario County had 11 deaths; Wayne County, seven; Yates County, three; and Seneca County, two.

Those numbers all went up in 2017. Ontario County, for instance, had an estimated 30-plus overdose deaths last year and Yates County had four; public health officials in Seneca and Wayne counties did not have exact numbers for overdose deaths last year, but it is believed to be more than 2016.

“Unfortunately, I think we would all agree that Seneca County numbers are not accurately reflecting the true number of overdose deaths in our county,” said Margaret Morse, director of community services for the Seneca County Public Health Department. “As a result, we have lost opportunities to access needed state funding. The mental health department identified challenges with data collection in this area, among others, as a priority action item in our 2018 comprehensive county plan.”

Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike said the county had 23 reported overdoses last year, but many were not fatal and included “saves” by law enforcement officers and citizens using Narcan. There were several other saves by emergency medical technicians (ambulance personnel) and medical personnel at area hospitals.

As far as opioid-driven emergency rooms cases in 2016, Wayne County had 148, Ontario County 141, Seneca County 46 and Yates County 43. However, Yates County’s rate of 193 visits per 100,000 population ranks second in the nine-county area only to Chemung County (196).

Yates County’s high rate is one reason the Clifton Springs-based Finger Lakes Area Counseling & Recovery Agency (FLACRA) recently started a new program aimed at combating the heroin and opioid crisis in Ontario and Yates counties — two of the most severely affected counties in the state.

The Center of Treatment Innovation program, known by the acronym COTI, provides intervention services around the clock to people, family and friends experiencing drug-related issues. At the heart of the free program is the 24/7 opioid response team that deploys a FLACRA mobile van after someone calls a toll-free number (1-833-435-2272).

“Since we launched the COTI program, we are out in the community and that is providing an opportunity to talk to people and intervene with people who will not go to a treatment center,” said Marty Teller, FLACRA’s longtime executive director. “That toll-free number is taking off. We are getting innumerable calls on that number and will deploy within two hours — to your home or elsewhere.”

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects that drug overdose deaths increased at least 20 percent from 2015 to 2016, with much of that increase driven by opioids.

In the Finger Lakes region, Common Ground Health officials said overdose deaths increased 46 percent from 2015 to 2016. Over that time, heroin overdoses more than doubled — from about 300 to more than 600.

“That is a huge spike ... and I believe that overdose rate is understated, because it doesn’t take into account Narcan saves. We have distributed hundreds and hundreds of kits to the general public and trained people on how to use them,” Teller said. “What we’re not seeing in the report is the person who overdoses that is saved by their brother, sister or friend, or an EMT, but doesn’t want to go to the hospital. If they don’t go to the hospital, it doesn’t get reported.”

To stem the epidemic, Common Ground Health officials said doctors are beginning to curb the amount of narcotics they prescribe. Municipalities and local organizations are also installing medication drop boxes in many areas of the Finger Lakes and getting expired drugs at collection events several times per year.

“If you no longer need it, get rid of it. If you do need it, keep it under lock and key,” Mary Beer, Ontario County director of public health, said of prescription drugs. “We are working with physicians to reduce what they are prescribing, but are finding that people are shopping for physicians to get drugs. It’s a hard addiction to get over, but the reality is they can recover from this.”

While counties work on ways to reduce dependence on prescription drugs, they are finding it harder to combat the heroin and fentanyl epidemic.

“There’s no quality control in what you are getting from a drug dealer,” Beer said.

“This is a crisis that law enforcement will never arrest our way out of. When the prescription is no longer available, abusers turn to other means of getting the opioid medication, heroin and fentanyl,” Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts added. “Fentanyl is much more potent than heroin and a smaller amount of fentanyl is needed to achieve the high. Dealers and drug buyers have no clue what they are selling or ingesting.”

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