Dr. Russell Vega talks about drug mortality report
MANATEE -- The year 2015 put Manatee County squarely on the state map for number of heroin deaths, but early indications are that deaths are going down in 2016.
The scope of local heroin deaths in 2015 were confirmed Monday in the Florida Medical Examiners Commission's semi-annual "Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons By Florida Medical Examiners" report.
Although the report said that in the first half of 2015 Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, which comprise the 12th Judicial Circuit, ranked fourth of 24 districts in the state in heroin-related deaths, Dr. Russell Vega, chief medical examiner for the district, on Monday said he believes 2016 will show a slowing of the heroin scourge.
"It appears that we have seen a significant decline from the peak in the first few months of 2016." Vega said. "While I am not in the best position to receive all the background information, from what I have gleaned from colleagues in law enforcement and the medical community, there may have been some improvement in the supply side of equation, maybe some of the supply has been interrupted."
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube on Monday said Vega is correct about the supply chain being disrupted.
"Over a month ago we arrested 15 people for trafficking, sale and possession of heroin," Steube said. "The overdoses and deaths have significantly decreased since those arrests. More arrests are expected since it is an on-going investigation."
Although the report doesn't include the second half of 2015, Vega on Monday said when that report comes out it will complete a tragic picture for Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, probably showing roughly 150 deaths from heroin in 2015 in the three counties.
"To show how striking that is, in the early 2000s we were in single-digit heroin deaths in Manatee," Vega said.
Vega likened the heroin explosion of 2015 to the prescription drug death spike in Manatee in 2010, which also had tragic results.
Ironically, deaths from prescription oxycodone decreased in the first half of 2015, Vega said,
Many who read the report and were not aware that things are reversing in 2016 came away stunned that Manatee had gained an unfortunate distinction for heroin deaths in 2015.
"To be fourth in the state of Florida for heroin overdoses is nothing to be proud of," said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, a member of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
In the first half of 2015, heroin was the cause of death for or found in the systems of 34 people in the 12th Judicial District, according to the report.
Only the districts that include West Palm Beach (63), Orlando (44) and Miami (40) had more deaths; the Fort Lauderdale-based district also had 34 deaths.
On the three counties in the 12th Circuit, Manatee had the most deaths from heroin by far, Vega said.
"It might be surprising to all of us, both the public and those of us actually doing the work, that in our relatively small district of the three counties, Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto, that we see so many of these deaths," Vega said. "We had more deaths from fentanyl in the first half of 2015 then any district in the state, regardless of population, and that includes the districts like Fort Lauderdale and Miami that easily have two and a half times our population and Hillsborough, our neighbor to the north which has well over one and a half times our population. Whatever it is driving this, we are just happening to see a disproportionate number of those deaths here and especially in Manatee County.
"The report doesn't parse the data out that far but we know from the data we keep internally that Manatee County is the biggest driver of those overdose type deaths," Vega said.
Eighty people in the 12th Judicial District died from heroin and/or fentanyl in the first half of 2015 -- 10 times higher than the eight who died during the same period a year earlier, according to the state medical examiners commission.
In all of 2014, when Manatee established itself as the heroin death capital of Florida, 110 people in the district died because of heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two and/or other drugs.
Eight of those deaths were in the first half of 2014; the other 102, in the second half.
Statewide, the latest data show a similar trend: In all of 2013, heroin killed 199 people in Florida, a toll that exploded to 447 in 2014. The report issued Monday says the number of heroin deaths statewide in the first half of 2015 was 114.8 percent higher than during the same period a year earlier.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, who is co-sponsoring anti-heroin legislation pending in Congress, said it is time to act to fight the epidemic.
“This shocking death toll in Florida underscores why Congress needs to act. A package of anti-heroin bills is expected to be on the House floor next month, including comprehensive legislation I have co-sponsored,” Buchanan said. “I will also be chairing a meeting of the entire Florida congressional delegation Thursday to discuss solutions to confronting the heroin crisis. Families in Florida and across the country are being destroyed by this growing health crisis.”
Heroin-related deaths exploded locally and statewide as authorities cracked down on the illegal use of certain pain medications. Making heroin use even more potentially deadly was that dealers began cutting it with fentanyl, a powerful pain killer.
Among the report's findings in the first half of 2015:
-- Fentanyl was the cause of death of or found in the systems of 46 people in the 12th Judicial District. Only the Ninth Judicial District, which includes Orlando, had a higher number of fentanyl-related deaths, 50. Most of the people who died locally -- 41 -- had other drugs in their system as well. In all of 2014, 55 people died with fentanyl found in their systems.
-- Statewide, total drug-related deaths increased by 13.9 percent in the first half of 2015, compared to the first half of 2014.
-- Occurrences of heroin statewide increased by 107.9 percent and deaths caused by heroin increased by 114.8 percent compared with the first half of 2014; 94 percent of all heroin occurrences were in accidental deaths.
-- Heroin (93.3 percent), fentanyl (72.8 percent), methadone (66.1 percent), morphine (57.8 percent), cocaine (52.5 percent), and oxycodone (52.2 percent) were listed as causing death in more than 50 percent of the deaths statewide in which these drugs were found.
The report also includes data on deaths caused by cocaine, prescription medications and other drugs. For example, in the 12th Judicial District, cocaine was listed as the cause of or found in the bodies of 59 people in the first half of 2015.