ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — As health departments battle the pandemic, Albany County is noticing an increase in overdose deaths. Officials say they’re seeing more than a 40% increase compared to this time last year, with 72 deaths.

County Executive Dan McCoy says the county is reconvening its opioid task force, which brings public health, mental health, and law enforcement officials together to fight what they’re calling “an epidemic within a pandemic.”

Several pandemic factors have played a role in the increase, including social isolation and economic uncertainty. He also stressed another factor in particular, mentioning that fentanyl shows up in 88% of people who died of an overdose this year.

As the pandemic impacts the opioid crisis, Stephen Murray, founder of First Responders for Harm Reduction, says the noticeable increase of fentanyl has become a major problem. “There are fentanyl test strips available most harm reduction agencies or you can test for the presence of fentanyl,” Murray said. “Problem at this point is that we know more than eight out of 10 bags are going to contain it.”

With self-isolation being a factor, Murray cautions to never use alone. As the State Administrator for “Never Use Alone” New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts, he says they’ve seen an increase in calls.

“People felt like they were miles apart from each other,” Murray said. “We saw an increase in the ‘Never Use Alone’ hotline nationally.” The hotline numbers to call for “Never Use Alone” are (800) 484-3731 and (800) 972-0590.

As the county assists by offering digital overdose and addiction prevention training, Murray says online platforms can provide help for something that’s a difficult approach.

“To push people into the absence of recovery model during a pandemic, may not actually be the most effective way of getting people to help they need,” Murray said. “We need to meet people where they’re at today and where they’re at today is that they are alone, isolated and they’re still using. We just want to keep them as safe as possible, today and tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow will be a brighter day for them.”

In the same time period back in 2019, there were 50 overdose deaths, which is why the increase to this year is 44%. McCoy added that there have been more overdose deaths in 2020 than any of the last five years. “If you look back to 2018, we had 55 overdose deaths. You can see what the effect this has had on people,” McCoy said. “That’s why on day two, we set up the mental health hotline for people to call because people deal with stress differently.”

He said the county would offer prevention training through Zoom and that he understands that not everyone works well with telemedicine, and some need in-person services. While there’s a variety of things that can contribute to the numbers, he says fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin and can kill you in a heartbeat, especially those with low tolerance. McCoy says it’s important to continue the education on how dangerous fentanyl and opioids can be.

Albany County Mental Health Director Stephen J. Giordano said over 2,600 individuals in the county are receiving addiction treatment, and over 1,500 of them are struggling in recovery with opioid use.

McCoy added that Albany County isn’t alone in seeing an increase, saying a number of counties in New York are experiencing the same thing, such as Rensselaer, Erie, and Duchess counties.