It’s still an often asked question — why has Manatee County been deemed the leading county in the state in deaths with a presence of heroin, fentanyl, morphine or cocaine per capita?
It’s a title Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells has been trying to combat. On Saturday, Wells told a group gathered at the Manatee County Central Library that what his deputies are doing is working.
Between July and October of 2016, deputies were called to 986 overdoses in Manatee County, 79 of which were fatal, according to Wells. In the same time period this year — with 10 days remaining in October — deputies responded to 180 overdoses and 18 were fatal.
While the evidence shows the statistics are improving, it’s still not enough.
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“Eighteen is still too high. I don’t want anyone,” Wells said. “We continue to struggle, but we’re not giving up the fight.”
Gerrie Stanhope of No Longer Silent said she’s sure there are more overdoses than that every day, and she’s still concerned about progress being made.
“It’s getting better, it’s just not getting better fast enough,” Stanhope said.
No Longer Silent, a local support group for those addicted to drugs and their family members, hosted the sheriff at their October meeting Saturday where representatives from several organizations and the community filled the room. They listened intently, occasionally applauding and nodding along as Wells shared his take on several topics surrounding the opioid epidemic, including why Manatee County has become a center point of the epidemic.
Wells believes it was the pill mills, which got patients addicted to pain medication before they were shut down.
But much of what was discussed as part of the contributing factor was the need for treatment.
“All I know is people are dying at an alarming rate. We have to come together as a community. ... We need to continue to do more,” Wells said.
Wells noted he knows law enforcement can’t arrest their way out of the epidemic. He acknowledged that many of those arrested are users, some only dealing to fund their addiction, and pointed to the recovery pods inside the jail. Wells said he hopes to expand it as the opportunity comes along.
“I want to make sure we’re doing what we can to make sure we take care of them when they’re in there,” Wells said. “We have been successful but we can always do better.”
Wells also pointed to law enforcement’s efforts to get information on opioids out to the public. A program will even allow deputies to transport those who call and say they are ready to seek out treatment to a facility.
“This is a powerful narcotic, they just have a difficult time getting off of it, it grabs a hold of them,” Wells said.
It was the first Stanhope has heard of the sheriff’s office offering to take people to treatment, but it was a welcome piece of information.
Kyle Vaillancourt, 23, agreed that treatment is necessary to battle the epidemic.
“We’ve been fighting this drug war for so long, and it’s worse than it’s ever been. It’s time to reevaluate and say this is not working... and try to treat the disease not the symptoms,” Vaillancourt said. “I think we should really shoot for better treatment and reforming our treatment and having treatment without costing them an arm and a leg.”