In the first six months of this year, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office responded to 787 suspected overdose calls.
That’s an increase of 156 percent, compared with 307 calls between January and June of last year, according to calls for service data provided by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. Such calls for service have increased steadily in the last five years, with a particular spike two years ago, when the opioid problem really took root in Manatee County.
The data on overdose calls for service from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is a telling measure of the opioid problem here.
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“We respond to the drug overdoses whether or not it’s a fatal overdose or an overdose where somebody has to go to hospital,” said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dave Bristow. “If we’re backed up in calls for service, there could be an exception, but basically we respond to all drug overdoses.”
At times, Manatee County Emergency Medical Services responds to suspected overdose calls, but only if there is a medical problem with the patient. Whether EMS responds to a call depends on the specific circumstances, said Mark Jones, Manatee County EMS deputy chief of clinical affairs and professional standards.
“It really depends on what the 911 caller gives the call taker,” Jones said. “Not every caller says ‘overdose’ when it is one.”
EMS administered naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, 339 times in 2013, the earliest year for which data was readily available. Narcan reverses the effects of opioid overdose. EMS does not administer Narcan on every overdose call it is dispatched to — only, Jones said, “if the patient presents with respiratory depression or arrest.” On some of the calls, more than one dose of Narcan is administered to the same patient.
Through July 26, EMS has administered Narcan 1,440 times this year. That’s already more than the total number of times Narcan was administered in all of 2015 and more than triple the number of doses administered four years ago.
Municipal police departments, separate from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, also respond to suspected overdose calls. In 2017 so far, with the most recent available data from each department:
▪ Bradenton Police Department responded to 205, through July 20
▪ Palmetto Police Department, 44, through June 30
▪ Bradenton Beach Police Department, 2, through July 25
▪ Holmes Beach Police Department, 1, through July 25
A reality check
The number of overdose calls surprised Melissa Larkin-Skinner, CEO of Centerstone.
“I’m astounded,” Larkin-Skinner said. “We’re a small town. I could see that maybe in New York City, even though that still seems high.”
Larkin-Skinner believes there are many factors leading to the high number of overdose responses and Narcan administration. And the reality check?
“We’re behind.” Behind in resources, behind in proactive measures, behind in options for addicts.
325 percent increase from 2013 in number of doses of Narcan administered by Manatee County Emergency Medical Services
Funding for addiction treatment has only just started to trickle down from federal and state levels, and drug education and prevention program DARE is no longer in schools.
“We’d like to believe that had funds been available before, more people would have been getting treatment all along,” Larkin-Skinner said.
Instead, addiction has taken its unwavering hold.
The biggest underlying cause, Larkin-Skinner said, is the drugs themselves. Fentanyl and carfentanyl, 50 and 100 times more powerful than morphine, make a deadly mix with already dangerous drugs.
Though she was less surprised by EMS Narcan administration numbers for 2017, she said, “it’s still hard to believe.”
Dr. Russell Vega, the medical examiner for Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, said most of the overdose deaths he’s seen are due to fentanyl and its analogs, not heroin. In the first three months of 2017, he saw at least 23 drug overdose deaths in Manatee County.
Because of testing backlogs and time-consuming testing procedures, the figures represent roughly the first third of the year, and possibly not even all of the cases that occurred in March.
Of the 23 deaths reported by Vega, 15 involved fentanyl, fentanyl analogs or heroin. Eight of the deaths involved cocaine overdoses, and methamphetamine overdoses contributed to four.
“That’s a surprise to me,” Vega said of the meth overdose deaths. “It’s something we haven’t seen much in the coastal counties.”
Overdose death numbers provided by the Medical Examiner’s office correspond with the significant increase the sheriff’s office experienced in responding to overdose calls. The sheriff’s office responded to more than double the amount of overdose calls in the first six months of 2015 compared to the same time frame in 2014.
“These numbers (for 2017) are on par with what we saw last year,” Vega said. “But we did not see the same number of deaths in 2015 and previously.”
The Medical Examiner’s office is attempting to overcome several obstacles presented by the large increase in drug overdoses in the county.
“We’re trying to keep up with cases, but it’s been difficult,” Vega said.
Though they’ve run out of space in the past, Vega said it hasn’t derailed their operations.
“We have been able to find a workaround so far,” he said.
But what happens from here?
“I think that what’s important is we can’t ever let our guard down again,” Larkin-Skinner said. “Because what happens is... Things become old news and become part of the norm, and we don’t talk about it anymore. We need to never let it get to that point.”
Herald reporter Jessica De Leon contributed to this story.