TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A small, mostly rural county west of Florida’s capital has seen an unprecedented rise in fatal drug overdoses believed to be caused by fentanyl mixed with other illegal drugs, a a sign that the national problem is getting even worse. long range
In all of 2021, Gadsden County had just 10 overdoses, Sheriff Morris Young said. He couldn’t remember any of them being fatal. The state even turned down a grant application to treat fentanyl overdoses because the county of about 43,700 people couldn’t definitively identify any cases linked to the powerful synthetic opioid.
Then last Friday Calls to emergency services began to pour in. Over the holiday weekend, nine people died and another nine were treated for suspected fentanyl overdoses. It is the latest in a string of fentanyl deaths across the country.
“It has shaken the entire community. I feel your pain,” Young said Wednesday. “I’m really treating this as if we have a hurricane approaching the city. It means a lot to me that we can lose people in such a short time.”
Gadsden County is widely known for its vegetable and cattle farms, historic southern buildings, and antique shops. Many families have known each other for generations. County Commission Chairman Ron Green said among the families of the victims he knew of were the children of a woman in her 60s who died over the weekend.
“They didn’t even realize their mom was using it again,” Green said. “This brought an alarming notice to them. Unfortunately, it’s too late.”
While the victims were 34 or older, Green is concerned that younger people could be in danger, “if we can’t hurry up and get it off the streets.”
Fentanyl can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, and traffickers combine it with other illegal drugs to increase its addiction. Law enforcement officials say most affected people don’t know it’s in the illegal drugs they’re buying, in amounts that might not otherwise be deadly.
The problem has become so acute that the US Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning three months ago about what it called “massive overdose events.” He cited dozens of deaths in more than a half-dozen clusters in recent months in places ranging from the small town of Cortez, Colorado, with fewer than 9,000 residents, to major cities like Washington, DC.
DISC Village is a non-profit drug treatment center serving the entire Big Bend of Florida, the group of counties where the Panhandle meets the peninsula of the state. It includes Gadsden County and Tallahassee, the state capital.
“In these last six months I have seen the most overdoses since I have worked here,” said Jennifer Travieso, who has worked at DISC for 17 years. “It’s definitely fentanyl and it’s in drugs that we wouldn’t expect it to be in, for example, cocaine, marijuana or methamphetamine.”
“Fentanyl and other opioid traffickers want to make sure people get hooked to keep their sales going,” Young said.
He gave an example of how powerful addiction can be. One of the men treated for an overdose on Friday was released from the hospital on Sunday, only to return after a second overdose on Tuesday. Young said that he had helped the same man get a job about a month ago.
“This is the scary part,” Young said. “These people, even with the fear of fentanyl as they could die, they will still risk going out and getting these drugs. These are some of the addicts who are truly, truly addicted.”
He said investigators are trying to trace the source of the fentanyl-laced drugs. He believes he arrived in the county prepackaged, so local dealers may not have known they were selling fentanyl. Either way, he wants severe punishment for those involved.
“We hope to take these cases to murder cases,” Young said.
Young and other law enforcement officials plan to meet Thursday with officials from the Department of Children and Families and the state surgeon general to discuss how to address the problem.
Young said EMTs have access to overdose treatments like naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, but officers don’t. He said he wants to immediately get the supplies into the hands of his officers and train them in their use.
“Fentanyl wasn’t even on my radar, and that changed around 9 p.m. Friday,” Young said.
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