OLEAN, N.Y. — At least four people have died apparently of heroin overdoses in the past week, further evidence the nation’s opioid crisis isn’t limited to larger cities and suburbs, officials in the western New York city of Olean say.
Olean Mayor William Aiello said Wednesday that a 29-year-old man who died of an overdose Monday was the fourth such recent death in the city of 14,000 near the Pennsylvania border and 60 miles south of Buffalo.
Aiello spoke at an evening vigil organized by Winning Olean Back, a group founded a year ago to battle the region’s growing opioid overdose epidemic. The gathering was held after Mathew Chaffee died of a suspected overdose nine days shy of his 30th birthday.
“I can’t make a cake. I can’t buy him a birthday present. I can’t do anything because I’m grieving because my son is dead all because of an addiction,” his mother, Karen Materna, said at the vigil.
Olean is only one of two cities in Cattaraugus (kat-uh-RAW’-gus) County, a mostly rural county of 78,000 that’s home to hundreds of farms, a gambling casino, St. Bonaventure University and a smattering of industries. It’s one of several counties along New York’s Southern Tier that has struggled economically for decades.
County health officials say at least 11 people have died of suspected drug overdoses so far this year, compared to 10 in all of 2016.
In neighboring Erie County, home to the city of Buffalo and with more than 10 times the population, the Health Department said nearly 300 people died of drug overdoses last year. So far in 2017, 66 deaths from opioid overdoses have been confirmed and toxicology reports are pending on another 111 cases involving drug deaths, the agency said.
Health officials in both counties said many of the overdose deaths are due to heroin laced with fentanyl, an opioid that can boost heroin’s potency to fatal levels.
Winning Olean Back originally planned a vigil for Aug. 31, International Overdose Awareness Day, but the recent deaths prompted organizers to hold it this week.
“The families are struggling, and asking why. And it’s so hard, because in this small town, everybody knows each other,” said Shannon Scott, who founded the group after losing a friend to an overdose. “So when it hits one person, it hits us all. I think as a community, we’re sick of losing everybody.”