MANATEE -- A string of 13 overdoses caused at least eight deaths during a seven-day stretch ending Tuesday in Manatee County, according to two emergency medical service veterans with more than 44 years experience between them.
"It's disturbing," said 28-year veteran Capt. Larry Luh, public safety acting chief of Manatee County Emergency Medical Service. "It's kind of mind-boggling to tell you the truth."
Heroin is being blamed for most of the deaths, if not all, according to an emergency room administrator.
Teresa Rawe, emergency room director at Manatee Memorial Hospital with 16 years experience, said the run of heroin-related ODs is the worst she's seen in at least two years.
"It's all over Manatee County," she said.
Over a period of seven days, Luh said emergency responders transported 13 patients classified as an overdose. He said he was not sure heroin was to blame in all cases.
"All were transported in emergency mode needing some kind of respiratory assistance in a critical state," Luh said.
Eleven patients went to MMH, one to Blake Medical Center and one to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.
"We took them to those hospitals because they were the closest in proximity," Luh said.
At least one user never made it to the ambulance, let alone a hospital.
"Last week we found a man in the bathroom with the needle still in his arm," said Chief Michael Radzilowski of the Bradenton Police Department.
Radzilowski said his narcotics officials are telling him there is more heroin on the streets.
"That's what they are combating on the street very hard," Radzilowski said. "It's something we've always had but it certainly is rising. We believe the rise in heroin is because it's become cheaper than the prescription medications they used to use.
"Heroin is a very dangerous drug. When you buy it you don't really know how much it's been cut. An unnaturally strong dose of heroin is gonna kill you. Period. You're buying it from strangers and you don't know what they've done to it. You're taking your life in your hands when you shoot it up."
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said he wanted to wait for medical examiners to determine heroin was the cause of the OD deaths.
"Without the toxicology it's a little bit tough to say what to attribute it to," Steube said. "My narcotics guys say there have not been not any significant increases in heroin seizures or arrests."
Heroin was not on the list of drugs causing the most Florida deaths last year yet it was listed No. 1 in the 2012 "Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons" report as the most harmful drug.
In the 12th Judicial District, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, there were 524 drug-related deaths in 2012, down 14 percent from 609 in 2011. Deaths caused by heroin increased from two to eight.
Rawe is convinced heroin is causing the recent damage even if law enforcement is more cautious.
"We think the reason for this rash is the crackdown on pill mills and pharmacies have stopped people from getting drugs like Oxycodone so they've gone back to heroin," Rawe said. "Heroin has higher potency and these people are overdosing on it. There's no indication it was intentional for suicide. Something has changed with that batch of heroin."
The OD victims range in age from 16 to 42 and come from all socioeconomic sectors, Rawe and Luh said.
"It's not coming from just one area," Luh said. "This is different. It's not centralized. It's all over the board."
Luh said overdose fatalities change with the times.
"I've been doing this for a few decades and it does seem cyclical in nature," he said. "Manatee County had a problem with pill distribution a couple years back and addicts with prescribed medications. We had a run for a while with those. Now those have passed due to the ordinance (against Florida pill mills)."
The two-a-day pace of recent overdose victims placed pressure on emergency response personnel.
"They need a little more definitive care than we can provide out in the field," Luh said. "The message needs to be delivered out in the community that something is going on. That something's happening. If an individual need assistance from addiction there's a lot of facilities that can provide that assistance."
Rawe said too many people are being dropped off at the MMH door near death.
"What raised our concern was the high number of deaths in short time," she said. "No heroin is good heroin but please stay away from this batch."
Terry O'Connor, Night Metro Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7040 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.