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The unknown number of opioid deaths

There are many pieces that factor into why more people are overdosing and dying of opioid-related causes. (WHAM photo - file)

Monroe County, N.Y. – Sitting in his Webster home, Dean Lucas pulls out memories - photos of his son, Robert Lee Lucas, known to many as Lee. He’s getting them ready to take to his last grieving group session.

Lee, 27, died of a heroin overdose in December 2016.

“I don't want anybody to end up feeling like I feel,” said Lucas. “Unfortunately, daily, there are parents that feel the way I feel.”

The impact of heroin is widespread in Monroe and surrounding counties; first responders see it far too often.

In March, Captain Chris Murtaugh with Henrietta Ambulance told us, so far this year, they have been administering Narcan about once a week.

When 13WHAM went to Monroe County to get the most recent number of opioid-related deaths, we learned the data ends at June 2016. At that point, 75 people in Monroe County had died of an opioid overdose. And the projected number for all of 2016 was 150 deaths, up from 85 in 2015.

A spokesperson for the Monroe County Health Department told us it does not produce real time, month-to-month reports, and that these death investigations can take many months, so day-to-day they, “don’t have complete an accurate data on heroin deaths.”

In May 2016, the New York State Department of Health started creating quarterly reports so that counties, like Monroe, would have data on the opioid epidemic.

But these records are not lining up with the data the county has collected on its own.

For example, the state’s quarterly report that was put out in April of this year shows 35 deaths for the January to June period of 2016, compared to the county’s 75, and three more deaths through September.

When we reached out to the state about this kind of discrepancy, a spokesperson told us this data should not be considered complete. On Page 6 of the report, it states, “The data in this report have some limitations. Significant time lag in the electronic reporting of death certificates and patient information to the NYSDOH impact data completeness. …Therefore, data in this report are not considered complete by the NYSDOH and should be used and interpreted with caution. Mortality, hospitalization, and ED quarterly data may change as deaths, hospitalizations, and ED visits are confirmed and reported.”

Gates Police Chief James VanBrederode tried to get the most up-to-date numbers earlier this year when he arrested and charged a man with criminally negligent homicide following a heroin overdose. He too was given the numbers through June 2016.

“You’ve got to take this problem seriously. This exceeds anything in my career, in epidemic. This is huge. This is killing our neighbors, our co-workers, this is killing everybody and this is a huge problem,” said Chief VanBrederode. “How do you come up with a solution when we haven't quite defined what the problem is, how big the problem is, and we don't have those numbers? I don't know how that's possible.”

One government that does appear to be taking the recording of this data seriously is Erie County.

A spokesperson for the Erie County Health Department tells me that since 2015, the Episiotomy section of the health department works to produce real-time numbers.

Since the beginning of the year, they count 40 people dead of an opioid overdose, with nearly 100 more cases pending.

After nearly two months of asking, Monroe County has no updated numbers.

“We as a community, we as public officials, those who make public policy, we have got to step up and figure out what we're going to do to address this problem,” said VanBrederode.

The NYSDOH tells us they are in the process of implementing the Electronic Death Registration System (EDRS). This system will allow for more timely reports to be received. The idea there: More up-to-date numbers.

But in the meantime, parents like Lucas know that even if the numbers don’t reflect reality, the heartache is real.

“It's so incredibly huge, and yet it's not treated like that,” said Lucas. “In my mind, it's not treated like that. If it was measles, mumps, or anything like, that they would treat it like an epidemic and they would attack it. Like AIDS, back in the day, they didn't think they would ever be able to deal with it. But they did because they treated it like an epidemic. Heroin is an epidemic.”

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