Fentanyl deaths are on the rise in Tampa Bay
Drug-related deaths increased by 17% in 2020, and the Tampa Bay region suffered tremendously. The CEO of a Pinellas substance use treatment program said the trend is worrisome.
The COVID-19 pandemic did not slow the rise of fentanyl-related deaths in Florida.
In fact, Florida's overdose problem only got worse. Drug-related deaths increased by 17% in 2020, and the Tampa Bay region suffered tremendously.
A new report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement report found that the St. Petersburg area had 591 deaths. In addition, the Tampa area had 339 deaths and Sarasota had 224.
Dianne Clarke is the CEO of Operation PAR, a substance use treatment program based in Pinellas County. She said the trend is more than worrisome.
"It's critical,” Clarke said. “These are people who are dying. These aren't just numbers. These are human beings. They are mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and our family members. It's all across the society."
Fentanyl, in particular, has become one of the greatest problems since the opioid crisis began, Clarke added.
"I don't see an end to this anytime soon, sad to say,” she said. “Fentanyl is being used in so many drugs now and some of the overdoses are so unintentional."
Florida struggles with drug overdoses. The state ranks second in the nation for overdose deaths, WUSF previously reported.
And the state has “always been one of the epicenters of the overdose crisis,” wrote Khary Rigg, an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida, in an email.
Some of this can be attributed to the state’s role as a port--with people entering the country through the state’s airports and shipping ports. The state also typically ranks last in spending on behavioral health, he said.
“This means that Florida suffers from lack of treatment providers, programs, and funding,” Rigg wrote. “Too many Floridians who need addiction treatment aren't able to receive it.”
The pandemic brought new issues for the recovery community and systems, Clarke said. Treatment centers had to cut back on admissions to allow for social distancing. And 12-step and other community programs had to move online.
“So people in the recovery community had less options to connect with other people,” Clarke explained. And recovery is about connection. ... The lack of personal connection and the reduction in treatment availability because of the pandemic, it was the worst perfect storm you could find for the community.”
This time of heightened stress had consequences, Rigg said. Some people began using drugs for the first time, used them alone, or in higher amounts than they typically would.
“All of these issues were behind the spike in deaths that we see during the (COVID-19) pandemic,” he said.
Clarke said it's important to spread the word about how hazardous the drug is--and that there is a lot of help available from the recovery community. There is treatment, and medicated-assisted treatment available for those trying to stop using drugs.