As the year comes to an end, local law enforcement continues to battle the heroin and fentanyl overdose crisis plaguing Manatee County.
But the question still looms: Why here? Why is Manatee at the epicenter of the epidemic?
Local law enforcement officials agree on one thing: They wish they had the answer.
In 2016, investigators saw the emergence of synthetic variations of fentanyl and specifically carfentanil that led to more deaths than heroin and standard fentanyl combined.
Already this year, fentanyl was confirmed present in 18 fatal overdoses in Manatee County while heroin was confirmed in nine deaths. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid painkiller 100 times more powerful than morphine that is often prescribed to cancer patients.
Carfentanil — which is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and is used as a tranquilizer to subdue large, exotic animals such as rhinos, elephants and hippos — has been confirmed in 43 fatal overdoses in Manatee County this year.
Only two other synthetic forms of have been identified in confirmed fatal overdoses. Of those cases, acetylfentanyl was found in three deaths and furanylfentanyl was found in two.
Creeping back up — although it really never left — cocaine has been found in 44 of the confirmed overdose deaths.
Data for 2016 remain incomplete, however, because of standard delays associated with waiting for final toxicology results.
Confirmed fatal overdoses for this year include all cases from January through June, and some cases from July through September, according to Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega, of the 12th District, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
The number of confirmed overdose deaths is expected to grow. On Friday, Vega said he was informed by the toxicology lab that 12 more cases, suspected to be carfentanil overdoses, are being finalized.
“This is a community problem that we can’t arrest our way out of,” said Capt. Todd Shear, commander of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Division.
Still, he is grateful for the community and its efforts in response to the crisis.
“We have come a long way in the last two years,” Shear said.
Since law enforcement remains on the front lines in the battle against the overdose epidemic, educating law officers on addiction has become essential.
“Our focus has never been on the arresting of addicts,” Shear said. “We want addicts to get the appropriate help.”
Efforts to cut demand
As Manatee County continues to lead Florida with the most deaths per capita involving heroin, fentanyl, morphine or cocaine, law enforcement is working closely with its flagship treatment facilities, Centerstone of Florida and Suncoast Behavioral Health Center, as well as local hospitals, according to Shear.
“They need support and the resources to help these folks,” he said.
But while law enforcement has not determined a reason why Manatee County has been hit the hardest in Florida by the epidemic, Shear said some factors have been identified.
The first factor was the 2012 crackdown on the pill mills. Manatee County had a substantial number of pain management clinics, he said. And research has found that people closer to the poverty line are more likely to abuse heroin than others.
“It was very easy in our area (to get pills), not to say that it wasn’t in other parts of the state,” Shear said. “Our demographic makeup here in comparison to other areas is another contributing factor. ... I really wish I had a definitive answer.”
Bradenton police Sgt. Shannon Seymour, a narcotics unit supervisor, says the solution is not one that law enforcement can arrest its way out of.
“Supply and demand,” Seymour said. “People aren't selling if people aren't buying. Drug trends, like everything else, are based on the want of the users.”
Bradenton police officers try to pass out information to addicts about where they can get help.
“It all boils to the community coming together, making arrests where we can and working with the treatment centers,” Seymour said.
Hundreds of cases
As of Dec. 7, the sheriff’s office this year has responded to 991 suspected overdoses and investigated 77 suspected overdose deaths.
The sheriff’s office has been working closely with the Bradenton and Palmetto police departments, sharing intelligence to go after dealers and help cut the supply.
Both cities have also seen their fair share of overdoses this year.
As of Dec. 1, the Bradenton Police Department had responded to 280 overdose-related calls and investigated 14 suspected overdose deaths. The Palmetto Police Department had responded to 67 suspected overdose cases and investigated seven as suspected overdose deaths.
This past summer, law enforcement and the Medical Examiner’s Office identified a pattern in which overdoses spike in the summer months, with July being the most deadly. This year the summer spike spiraled so out of control that at times Manatee County’s morgue was over capacity and bodies had to be stored elsewhere at a cost.
“We are hoping that it stays quiet,” Shear said, as the number of overdoses again decrease going into the winter months.
Shear said local law enforcement has not been able to identify the reason for the summer spike.