The number of suspected overdoses in Pinellas County quadrupled to more than 6,500 in the five-year period ending in 2020, with 546 people dying that year.
As 2021 comes to a close, experts say the county is likely to surpass that death count.
Although data on the total number of overdose deaths in 2021 won’t be available until later in the new year, the Medical Examiner’s Office reported 411 people died of an overdose in the first eight months. The previous year’s death toll for the same time frame was 363, officials said.
The people who were confirmed to have died from an overdose during the first eight months of 2021 ranged in age from 21 to 73. The lone exception was a 10-day-old premature infant who died of complications related to the mother’s drug use.
At an end-of-year panel discussion on the opioid response in Pinellas County, experts attributed the increase to the pandemic, which resulted in overdose spikes nationally as people were isolated and treatment options went virtual. Between 2019 and 2020, overdose deaths rose by 17 percent in Florida, according to data from the state Department of Health.
But experts said that changes in the chemical composition of drugs being used also has had an effect.
Pinellas County forensic laboratory director Reta Newman said that fentanyl — an incredibly potent synthetic opioid — played a major role in driving deaths in 2020. The same was true in 2021, but Newman said that toxicology reports revealed new substances being used.
“We’re seeing a whole new class of synthetic opioids,” Newman said. “This is something that is very concerning.”
Additionally, Newman said the county is seeing more mixtures — a cocktail-like combination of drugs combined into a single powder or pill.
“Stimulants, opioids, animal tranquilizers, MDMA, a dissociative anesthetic,” said Newman, rattling off the various compounds her lab has seen combined
“We’re not just fighting fentanyl, which is bad enough,” she said. “We’re fighting these crazy mixtures.”
That’s especially dangerous, said Department of Health-Pinellas overdose prevention coordinator Marianne Dean, because it makes overdose reversal medications like naloxone less effective. The medication — commonly known by its brand name, Narcan — restores breathing in people who have overdosed on opiates.
Dean said that tackling the epidemic in the coming year is going to take a full community effort, as agencies work together to coordinate services for people with substance-use disorders.
“This is not a one-person job,” Dean said. “This is not a one-agency issue.”
New steps are being taken in Pinellas County to increase access to treatment, better understand what’s fueling the epidemic and remove barriers to care.
Joshua Barnett, a behavioral health data scientist and health administrator for Pinellas County, said major grants received last year are being used to implement three major overdose prevention strategies.
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The first, Barnett said, is increasing naloxone distribution around the county, so when somebody does overdose, there’s an immediate means to try to keep them alive.
The second is increasing qualitative data collection. Barnett said the county is currently working to develop a system to help collect information about people who have died of overdoses.
“How do we gather information from next of kin to better understand what happened to that individual, so we can better understand their life, and recovery, and ultimately their mortality,” Barnett said.
By better understanding the trajectory of people’s lives, scientists might be able to identify trends that illuminate breakdowns in treatment and improve the approach of prevention services, according to Barnett. In preparation, people who will be conducting that research have met with grief and bereavement specialists to get training on how to responsibly work with people who have experienced trauma.
Lastly, Barnett said, the county has established an overdose Quick Response Team, which it is hoping to expand.
The Quick Response Team serves as a way to follow up with patients suspected of having overdosed. Through an electronic system, emergency personnel can now transfer a patient’s contact information to treatment providers — if the patient consents — who then reach out in the days after the overdose.
Similar programs have been implemented across the country and have been found to help communities decrease overdose death rates.
As of December, around 60 referrals had been made by rescue workers, Barnett said. Of those, 22 people have received treatment and support.
“This is another way to engage somebody with recovery services during an emergency event,” Barnett said. “Oftentimes, it takes multiple engagements.”