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"Black Balloon Day" Commemorates the Victims of the Opioid Epidemic Sweeping Erie County, NY

On Monday evening, Erie County, NY leaders hosted a memorial event to remember the victims of the rampant opioid epidemic that continues to claim lives in Buffalo and the entire county. Aimed at increasing awareness of the potentially fatal opioid use disorders that many community members still struggle with, "Black Balloon Day" was modeled after an undertaking in Peabody, Massachusetts. At 6 p.m., members of the West Side Youth Development Coalition and the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force, along with friends and families affected by this devastating public health crisis gathered in front of Old County Hall in downtown Buffalo to commemorate loved ones lost to the epidemic and demand action to fight the opioid epidemic in Western NY.

With more than 60 suspected opioid-related overdose deaths in the county this year ( as of March 3rd) and over 320 lives lost last year, the relevance of this public awareness event, which is a nationwide commemoration, has never been more stringent and urgent. Attendees from all walks of life who suffered the loss of a loved one shared their stories, grief and daily struggles, hoping to help not only the healing process but also other community members who have someone close to them battling the disease. At the end of the event, all attendees, nearly 250, were invited to take home a black balloon to affix to their mailbox or front porch. Each and every victim of the opioid epidemic in Erie County was represented by a black balloon and all the names of the victims were read aloud.

Mary Jo Alessio lost her son Ephraim to an opioid overdose in 2005 and stated that a change to NY state law, more specifically one that would allow parents to get a court order mandating medication-assisted treatment for their children who struggle with an opioid use disorder could actually save lives. She added that another way of addressing this crisis full force is to increase the number of detox beds in the community. Debra Smith, who serves as the chair of the County Opiate Epidemic Task Force’s Family and Consumer Support Advocacy Section ( one of the Task Force's 7 work groups) lost her son Nathaniel to an opioid-related overdose two years ago. Smith urged participants to the Black Ballon Day event to not dismiss any plan until the community can come up with a better plan because keeping people alive is the number one priority.

Debra Smith added that she would like to see clinicians who prescribe opiate pain relievers perform a test in order to assess whether the patient has developed this disease while on these pills and if so, to address it immediately. Smith also said that she wants to see medication-assisted treatment offered to all of those who suffer from an opioid use disorder as well as every family in Western New York benefit from proper education regarding the signs and symptoms associated with this horrible disease. She concluded that the right approach to breaking the stigma and getting the necessary resources along with the recognition of the depth of this disease is speaking about it. Jeanie Kline, who also lost her son to the epidemic last year, emphasized the urgent need to end the stigma of mental condition and criminal connotation which are attached to the illness because this is real and it is happening in every family. For Kline, this Monday became her first Black Balloon Day.

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