Fifteen to 20 people are treated for an overdose every day at Manatee Memorial Hospital.
That number shocks Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
“To have a number that high, I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the state that per capita is seeing that rate of overdoses showing up in emergency rooms in just one facility,” he said.
In a roundtable discussion Monday at the place where people are brought back from the brink of death with two, three or four doses of the opioid antidote Narcan, Rubio and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, met with local law enforcement, hospital staff and government officials to talk about the opioid crisis.
Rubio asked how heroin and now fentanyl are affecting the Manatee County population.
“I can tell you there was one night just I think last month where there were 20 cars on the road from the sheriff’s office, 10 of them were in our emergency room with overdoses,” said the hospital’s CEO Kevin DiLallo.
He added that some people who have overdosed come back to the hospital two or three more times, which depletes both hospital and law enforcement resources.
“It’s a big issue in Florida and especially in Manatee County,” Buchanan said.
Last year, Manatee County had the highest rate of fentanyl deaths in all 67 Florida counties. The county has been the unrelenting center of the opioid epidemic for the past few years.
“Here, the addicts are more likely to be your neighbor,” said Manatee Memorial neonatologist Dr. E. Bernard Cartaya when comparing working in the county to working in Miami.
In 2014, around 700 doses of Narcan, the opioid antidote, were administered. As of Friday, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Todd Shear said the number of Narcan administrations is up to 2,279 this year.
Reforming laws, getting federal funding to meet the need and winning bipartisan support for needed legislation were major talking points during the hour-long meeting.
For addicts, Bradenton Police chief Melanie Bevan said the Baker and Marchman acts are outdated.
The Marchman Act is enacted as temporary detention to evaluate an addict for treatment, but Bevan noted that its language is catered to alcohol abuse.
The Baker Act, which allows involuntary institutionalization and examination of a person who appears to be a harm to themselves or others, isn’t always effective in helping addicts who have overdosed. Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who is also a nurse, said addicts are typically discharged after being treated for an overdose because their overdose was an accident, and it isn’t legally considered a harm to themselves or others.
The tricky legal loophole with fentanyl is that it’s a schedule II narcotic, meaning it has a high potential for abuse but is legally used in hospitals for pain treatment. Shear said there’s no minimum mandatory sentence for possessing it.
“If I’m a drug dealer, I’m not touching heroin,” Shear said in a hypothetical situation. “I’m going to go to the big stuff because I can have a truckload of carfentanil, I can have a truckload of fentanyl and no trafficking charges.”
Sheriff-elect Rick Wells said he wants to shift a greater responsibility onto drug dealers when their victims die. Now, when many drugs are in a victim’s system, it’s legally impossible to tell which drug actually killed them.
“We need to change the statute when it comes to manslaughter,” Wells said. “We want to take that drug dealer who knows that this fentanyl is hot and that’s going to kill this victim, we want to charge them.”
Outside channels of trafficking from Canada, Mexico and China are increasing problems for Manatee County. Shear said there are 160,000 chemical companies in China that produce fentanyl and carfentanil.
“Nowadays, you don’t have to wait for the poppy plant to harvest,” Shear said. “Nowadays, you can just pick up the phone and call 1-800-CHINA and ... you can have it delivered to your front door.”
As the discussion came to a close, some who sat in as observers weren’t finished.
Gerrie Stanhope, of the anti-heroin group No Longer Silent, said she’s lost four people in one year.
“The big thing I see that we need is money for treatment centers,” Stanhope said. “They’re not out there. My son died trying to get into a treatment center.”
Julia Negron, with Suncoast Harm Reduction Project, said there’s only one methadone clinic in the county.
“I overdosed. I was brought back with Naloxone and I’m now a grandmother of eight. Look what happens when you save someone’s life,” Negron said. “Why can’t we get some of that funding?”
Rubio responded to Negron’s question, saying that it was an “ugly answer.”
“The individuals responsible for passing the law are up for re-election, and some people didn’t want them to get credit for the funding,” he said.
Buchanan said he and Rubio would fight for more funding when they return to Washington later this year.
“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “It’s not just a big issue here in Manatee County, I think it’s a big issue across the country.”