BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Health officials across the region say the number of people dying of drug overdoses is directly related to the increased use of synthetic opioids hundreds of times stronger than the real thing, chemicals that are legal in some of the countries that manufacture them.
But that will soon change for one of this country’s biggest sources of a deadly synthetic opioid, carfentanil.
Health officials across the region have said for months the number of people dying of drug overdoses is directly related to the increased use of fentanyl, a drug that’s 100 times more powerful than morphine. Carfentanil, its more powerful — and deadly — chemical relative, is more than 100 times stronger than fentanyl, and used to tranquilize elephants and even in chemical warfare.
“It’s really everywhere,” said Dr. Joshua Lynch, an emergency physician for Kaleida and ECMC. “These drugs are being distributed all over western New York.”
Fentanyl and carfentanil is showing up on the streets of western New York, in local emergency rooms, and increasingly, at county morgues.
“It’s so concentrated that it’s meant to treat a 500, 600, 700 lbs animal,” Lynch said. “A handful of those grains of sand is enough to leave somebody unconscious or stop breathing. Everybody’s different. But the bottom line is, it doesn’t take very much.”
On March 1 however, shipments to places like Buffalo or other parts of the country could be curbed, when a new law in China takes effect that will outlaw carfantanil and three other deadly synthetic opioids.
“China is theoretically one source,” Lynch said. “Unfortunately, it’s not the only source. But if we cut off one of the major sources, we would hopefully see the effects here.”
As the local death toll rises, medical professionals like Lynch, who’s also on the county’s Opiate Epidemic Taskforce, are faced with trying to aim at a moving target, and one that’s killing people at record rates.
“I think it solidifies that what we’re doing is important, and we have less time,” he said.
Because of the strength of drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil, stronger recommendations are being issued to emergency responders for their use of Narcan or Naloxone, the anti-opiate drug that’s a main reason local overdose numbers aren’t higher than they are.
“We’ve issued new recommendations to all the people now who carry Naloxone, EMS, police, fire, the public,” Lynch said. “Now, we’re instructing them to give a couple doses, not all at once, but a couple minutes apart if you don’t see an effect.”
The current backlog at medical examiners’ offices across the region is having an impact as well. It can take several weeks to process a toxicology report, which provides chemical clues to how and why a person died. The backlog earlier this month from 2016 at the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office stood at 68, a number that only increased with the more than four dozen who have already died this year.
“It makes it so much harder for us to put those pieces together because things are changing so much,” Lynch said. “So the Medical Examiner’s results may be coming out today, months after the supply has stopped, but the supply is coming from somewhere else and now people are dying from it tomorrow. And now our heads are spinning.”
Lynch said the new regulations issued to first responders are important, as is the taskforce’s addiction hotline. It’s often the first step for drug users or their friends and family to get help.
The program links callers with an entire web of people whose only job is to treat the disease of addiction. That number is (716) 831-7007.