A sudden increase in suspected heroin overdoses and deaths has law enforcement in Manatee County working to identify the source.
Heroin overdose-related calls and deaths had been declining in Manatee County the past several months, after a two-year epidemic saw Manatee become the epicenter of the crisis in Florida.
In June, area law enforcement again reported a spike in heroin-related cases.
In Palmetto, three overdose deaths since June 7 are suspected to have involved heroin, Police Scott Tyler said Thursday.
“Back during the epidemic, we had two deaths but that was over several months,” Tyler said. “This is pretty alarming to us.”
It will be some time before toxicology reports can confirm a cause, Tyler said, but investigators are reasonably certain heroin will be the culprit based on the evidence.
In Bradenton, the number of overdose-related calls also spiked from an average of five to 10 a month up until May, then to 19 in June, Lt. James Racky said. About 95 percent of the overdose-related calls are suspected to have involved heroin.
To date, Bradenton police have four reported overdose deaths, including three suspected to be have been caused by heroin.
“We can’t identify a specific trend or reason why June has been exploding,” Racky said.
Bradenton police are working with other local enforcement agencies and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to investigate.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office reported seven suspected overdose deaths to date this year compared with 27 overdose deaths in the first half of 2015, according to spokesman Dave Bristow.
In February, two top suspected heroin dealers in Manatee County were among 15 people arrested after an 18-month investigation by federal and local authorities. The operation focused on dealers cutting the heroin with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller, now prevalent locally.
Tyler said while the sheriff’s office was effective in eliminating a lot of the top dealers, there are concerns other drug dealers have taken their place.
During the height of the epidemic, Tyler said it got to the point dealers were giving buyers a sort of “buyer beware” notice the heroin may have fentanyl and could be lethal.
The Palmetto Police Department, he said, has been doubling its prevention and education efforts to combat the epidemic.
“Going forward, people using heroin need to know that this stuff can and will kill,” Tyler said.