In record numbers all over the Tampa Bay region, people are dying from overdoses, officials in multiple counties say.
Opioids are largely to blame. And many of the people using them likely have no idea what they are buying.
“People don’t realize that they’re playing Russian Roulette every time they ingest a powder off the street,” said Paul Carey, the narcotics division commander for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
Statistics kept by the Pinellas County Forensic Lab show drugs seized by local law enforcement turn out to be mixtures more often than not. As a result, some users looking for uppers like cocaine or meth are getting substances mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic, potent opioid similar to heroin.
Whether they’re seeking out opioids or not, many users are dying. In Pinellas County, 200 died from overdose in the first half of the year, said Reta Newman, director of the Pinellas forensic lab. The record, set last year, was 323. In Pasco, 96 have died in the first half; the record, 165, was set at the peak of the prescription drug crisis.
The opioid problem is particularly prevalent in the white community, Newman’s numbers showed. Of the 238 opioid overdose deaths in Pinellas in 2018, 232 of the victims were white.
In Hillsborough, numbers are still trickling in from the first half of the year, but recorded overdose deaths have already hit 118, said Harrison Cowan, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s manager of operations. Last year’s total was 235.
It’s unclear whether the county is on pace for an overall overdose record, but Cowan said the numbers show the opioid crisis is worsening. In 2017, 98 deaths in the county were attributed to heroin or fentanyl. In 2018, the number was 153.
This year, the number will likely be higher, Cowan said: “People are mixing these to the point that they’re dying almost instantly.”
At a meeting of the Pinellas County Opioid Task Force on Thursday, officials huddled at the county’s forensic science center to discuss the crisis. The task force was formed in 2017 to address the skyrocketing trend of opioid overdoses. It’s led by the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County and Operation PAR, an addiction and mental health services nonprofit.
Present at the meeting were representatives from Pinellas Schools, local law enforcement, the County Commission and several nonprofits.
In a presentation to the group, Newman, the forensic lab director, did not have much in the way of good news.
“We have more than eclipsed the prescription drug crisis,” Newman said.
Pinellas and Pasco were each hit hard by that crisis, which peaked in intensity about a decade ago. Now that the so-called “pill mills” have largely closed, addicts are turning to the streets.
They’re finding cheap and easily manipulated fentanyl. Officials at Newman’s lab have identified over a dozen different chemical varients of the opioid in their recent testing.
During the winter of 2018-2019, Newman’s lab found one strain, Fluoro Furanyl Fentanyl, that was unique to Pinellas-Pasco. It was reported nowhere else in the United States, and it was associated with 40 local deaths. (It has since disappeared.)
Carey said fentanyl is difficult to combat from a law enforcement perspective because its potency makes it easy to ship into the county via the mail.
Overall, the overdose epidemic presents a complex public health challenge. Officials are forced to balance preventative measures like treatment and counseling with aggressive law enforcement.
Gayle Guidash of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, who presided over the task force meeting, said the county should look to invest more resources into treatment.
That’s not to say law enforcement is making no progress.
Carey noted that narcotics officers have had some success responding to overdoses. If the patient survives, officers can ask them about their source, and then hopefully track the lethal drugs back to higher level dealers.
But to Carey, the fundamental problem in the fight against these deadly drugs is demand.