Rise in Opioid Overdoses in Onondaga County

Over the last year, there has been a significant increase in the number of fatal opioid overdoses in Onondaga County. From January through September 2020 there was a 40% increase in opioid overdose deaths compared to the same time period in 2019 (121 deaths vs 86 deaths, respectively). The pandemic has exacerbated the opioid epidemic, through risk factors such as high unemployment rates, social isolation, and despair, as well as the disruption of available treatment and harm reduction support services that individuals with substance use may depend on.

The Onondaga County Health Department ODMAP overdose tracking system, there has been notification of several significant spikes in overdose activity over the past two months. These reports have indicated 12 or more overdoses occurring in a 24 hour period, occurring as recently as yesterday. This appears to be linked to increased amounts of fentanyl in the drug supply. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl is added to heroin and other drugs to increase its potency and decrease the cost of production. Many people who use drugs believe that they are purchasing heroin or another drug and actually don’t know that they are purchasing fentanyl – which often results in overdose occurrences. Statewide, there have been reports of fentanyl not only in heroin but in other drugs such as cocaine, leading to an increase in overdoses in people who do not typically use opioids.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has not made other health crises disappear in our community; instead, the pandemic has contributed to increases in other serious public health concerns in Onondaga County, such as opioid-related overdoses. This crisis has affected individuals across all populations in Onondaga County and we need to work together to turn the tide,” said County Executive Ryan McMahon.

Onondaga County Commissioner of Health, Dr. Indu Gupta explained, “This increase is very concerning and is a stark reminder that opioid epidemic continues to impact people’s lives in our community. Our three-pronged approach of prevention, treatment, and addressing crisis is crucial in addressing this.”

Focus on Prevention:
During this time of potential social isolation, we encourage you to check in and connect with your loved ones who may be experiencing social isolation, despair, or other risk factors for developing a substance use disorder.

Safe disposal of unused medications at your local pharmacy or another drug take-back location can also help if you or a loved one may be susceptible to opioid use disorder. You can find local disposal locations here.

Access to Treatment:
It is important to monitor friends and family members for signs and symptoms of substance use disorders and help to connect them with needed treatment resources in our community. You can learn what to look for here and locate treatment resources here.

Additionally, recent changes to federal policy have made it easier for physicians to treat opioid use disorder (OUD). Until now, physicians were required to take specialized training and apply to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for a waiver to prescribe buprenorphine, a medication used to treat OUD. Now, any state-licensed physician registered with the DEA can prescribe buprenorphine for up to 30 patients. Physicians should consider prescribing buprenorphine to expand access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT.)

Addressing Crisis:
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is an opioid overdose reversal medication that is available as a nasal spray. Being trained to use naloxone is an easy way to potentially save a life. A list of training options in our community can be found here. In addition, if you are in need of naloxone, you can contact the Onondaga County Health Department at naloxonetraining@ongov.net.

Together we can work to reduce these preventable deaths in our community.