Heroin Epidemic

Drug Task Force wants to track overdose victims seeking treatment in Manatee County

Manatee County, which had a population of 351,746 people in 2014, had the most heroin deaths per capita in Florida in 2014, according to the 2014 Medical Examiners Commission Drug Report.
Manatee County, which had a population of 351,746 people in 2014, had the most heroin deaths per capita in Florida in 2014, according to the 2014 Medical Examiners Commission Drug Report.

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Manatee County needs a way to adequately track the opioid and heroin epidemic, who is overdosing and who is seeking help, according to members of the Prescription Drug Task Force.

Dr. Jessica Spencer of the Manatee County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, also known as Drug Free Manatee, said Thursday the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office has been checking on revived overdose victims to ask if they've sought addiction treatment and provide resources. She wants a similar program in Manatee.

"We need data to tell us when and where are we using the naloxone, and then what are we doing?" Spencer said.

The information is important, Spencer said, so officials can correctly identify where resources are needed. For example, if a first responder checks on an overdose victim tracked by the administration of naloxone, which stops overdoses, and they say they tried to get treatment but couldn't, officials could get an idea of how prevalent

the issue is and what treatment resources are needed.

"Not tracking naloxone is a major problem," said Kersten Schroeder, a professor at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and co-chairman of the meeting. "Are we tracking this by how many deaths there are in our ER? Because that doesn't seem like a good way to measure."

The task force partnership between Drug Free Manatee and LECOM is meeting monthly to discuss ways to combat the heroin epidemic in Manatee County. The county had the most deaths per capita from heroin and fentanyl in Florida in 2014, according to a medical examiner commission report, and the deaths in Manatee have climbed higher in 2015.

Besides a tracking system, Spencer said they want to work on comprehensive education to prevent addiction. In addition to families and students, Drug Free Manatee and LECOM want to target physicians who prescribe painkillers. About 45 percent of people who use heroin are also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Most medical schools require no training on addiction, and doctors don't have to complete any addiction training to keep their medical licenses, even though all physicians can prescribe opioids. The task force wants to look into changing that.

"We're potentially changing the next generation of physicians," Spencer said.

Schroeder said it's a lot more complicated than it sounds, because they have to work with county officials, local hospitals and many medical professionals to get any sort of standard changed.

"There's so many moving parts, and that's what the issue is," Schroeder said. "Getting the moving parts to work together and come up with solutions."

Dominic Williams, a LECOM medical student, volunteered to come up with a set of screening questions all doctors could ask patients before prescribing painkillers. That way, doctors would have a simple standard to identify potential addiction issues.

The group is also looking to participate in Drug Facts Week, a national health awareness service for teens to "shatter myths about drugs." Manatee County has never participated in the January events. The task force is exploring sending LECOM students into Manatee high schools, possibly particularly focused on the heroin epidemic and the risks of opioid addiction.

"Education is our key to prevention," Spencer said. "We're looking for places we can push out into the community more."

Additionally, Spencer and Chairwoman Mandy Peebles, a LECOM pharmacy student, said they want to talk with families more about how to recognize drug use in children and how to tackle it.

"I feel like demanding that they take a drug test right away isn't the way to handle it," Peebles said. "That would alienate them."

Spencer said one family solution to cutting down on drug use in young people is incredibly simple.

"Family dinners are the No. 1 deterrent to substance abuse," Spencer said. "Studies show that it's effective as little as three times per week."

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby.

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