MANATEE -- In fallout from the crackdown on pill mills, concerns about the re-emergence of heroin usage have proved to be justified, as law enforcement and health professionals are seeing an increase in overdose deaths.
The spike in overdoses has triggered the Manatee County Sheriff's Office to begin more closely tracking suspected overdose deaths, spokesman Dave Bristow said Thursday. Since Jan. 1, detectives have investigated 35 suspected drug overdose deaths.
The 12th Judicial Medical Examiner's Office, which covers Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto counties, has seen an increase in deaths where alprazolam, diazepam, heroin, hydrocodone, morphine and prescription drugs were a factor.
Concerns about the re-emergence of heroin overdoses began last year, and now officials at Manatee Glens addictions center are seeing at least a 35 percent increase in heroin usage, according to director Dr. Jessica Crosby.
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"Heroin is still cheaper than opiates," Crosby said. "The crackdown on the opiates is still causing people to turn to heroin, and heroin is stronger and less controlled so we are seeing more overdoses."
Heroin overdoses are something she hears about on a weekly basis now. But not all lead to deaths, she added.
Deaths caused by or where heroin was present increased to 19 in 2013, from eight in 2012, in the 12th Judicial District.
Overdoses often happen when people don't follow up with treatment after going through detox, Crosby said. Just out of detox, they
are more likely to overdose if they use again.
There are many changes Crosby believes need to happen in the community to gain control of the problem. To begin with, clear protocols need to be set up for places like urgent care centers, walk-in clinics or emergency care departments.
"They need to screen more for addiction," Crosby said. "There are still a lot of cases that people are getting opiates that, in my opinion, shouldn't have them."
Addicts used to doctor-shop to get more pills. Now they are shopping for emergency and urgent care.
"Also during routine visits, in any kind of health-care setting, we need to be accessing clients more often and determine what is their abuse potential and what is their access," Crosby said.
Education is also key to curb the growing problem, Crosby and law enforcement agree. There are many alternate medications available for addicts who have real health issues.
The sheriff's office hopes that by increasing awareness of the problem, it may help to decrease the number of overdoses they are seeing.
"Signs and symptoms of an overdose can vary depending on what drugs are used, how they are used, the frequency of use and the amount used. If a drug overdose is suspected, it's imperative to seek immediate medical attention," the sheriff's office said in a news release Thursday.
The Bradenton Police Department also is seeing an increase in overdoses, according to Lt. James Racky, SWAT team leader and the detective division's lieutenant. The department's narcotics unit is looking into all overdoses.
"We are investigating all the heroin deaths trying to find links," Racky said. "It just seems to be a vicious cycle, with one drug then another. Right now that seems to be heroin."
The Palmetto Police Department has not seen as big of a problem as elsewhere in the county, according to Deputy Chief Scott Tyler. But it is still a concern.
"We have only had one drug overdose this year; we suspect it was a drug overdose," Tyler said. "I can't remember the last time we had a drug overdose in Palmetto. So with the one, we are definitely up."
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.