Florida Second In Nation For Overdose Deaths
Drug overdose deaths increased significantly across the country last year, but Florida in particular saw a huge spike.
More than 93,000 people died of a drug overdose in the U.S. in 2020, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the highest number of overdose deaths the country has ever recorded, and reflects a 29.4% increase from 2019.
Florida ranks second in the nation for overdose deaths, behind only California. Last year, 7,579 people died from a drug overdose, an increase of 37% from 2019.
“The pandemic has affected the whole country, and the opioid crisis has tracked right along with that,” said Dianne Clarke, CEO of Operation PAR, a substance use treatment program based in Pinellas County.
The greater Tampa Bay region has also been hit hard by the opioid crisis.
According to estimates from Project Opioid, more than 1,200 Tampa Bay residents died from opioid usage in 2020, exceeding the 1,024 deaths reported in 2019.
The Pinellas County Opioid Task Force shared that drug deaths in that county increased by 35% in 2020.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office reported a total of 1,491 overdoses in 2020, resulting in 268 deaths — a 71% increase from 2019.
“Florida is a port of entry for drugs. When you look at our international airports, the amount of ports we have, the amount of coastline we have, what that means is not only is there more here, but when it gets here, it's more pure,” Clarke said.
Overdose deaths were already on the rise in Florida, but the pandemic accelerated the situation.
People with drug dependency became more isolated, having less contact with their family and friends. On top of that, 12-step meetings were paused, churches shut down and some rehab programs shifted to telehealth models.
Stressors like job loss and eviction, which can be triggers for people who have an addiction, were amplified in the last year.
“Alcohol use is up, drug use is up, and stress is up,” Clarke said.
“How humans relate to stress — the stress of health, the stress of unemployment, the stress of the unknown — it's just been a real learning experience, I think, for all of us. And not only a learning experience, but bringing it all home that this is local, this is national, this is global.”
The coronavirus pandemic hit as fentanyl, an extremely powerful synthetic opioid, continues to become more widespread.
Clarke shared that fentanyl deaths in Pinellas County increased by more than 52% between 2019 and 2020.
“That's the drug we're battling right now,” she said.
While many people dying from fentanyl have an opioid dependence, other drugs like cocaine and pills like Percocet, OxyContin and Xanax are being cut with the synthetic opioid.
“People who might be using cocaine or amphetamines don't realize that there's fentanyl cut into those drugs,” Clarke said. “And their bodies are naive to opioids, so they overdose and die not even realizing they were doing fentanyl.”
According to Clarke, one of the best ways to fight the opioid epidemic is to promote principles of harm reduction — policies that reduce the chances that people will abuse or overdose on drugs.
For example, she supports a recent Pinellas County ordinance that allows for a countywide syringe exchange program.
“Evidence-based programming shows that harm reduction does reduce deaths,” Clarke said.
“That includes syringe exchange programs and being able to give people fentanyl testing strips so that they can test their drugs before they use them to see if there's fentanyl in it.”
More than anything, Clarke encourages those struggling with drug dependence to seek out help.
“Recovery is possible,” she said. “As long as you're alive, there's hope. And there is treatment available. Don't be afraid to reach out because there are people here to help even in the middle of this. No matter how bad it is, there are ways to get help.”
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