During the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s another alarming issue surging in Pasco County — rising fatal and non-fatal drug overdoses.
The Pasco Sheriff’s Office has reported 1,491 overdoses (and 268 deaths) from January 2020 to December 2020 — representing a 71% increase from 2019.
This includes a single-month high of 168 overdoses (39 fatal) in May, agency data shows.
Most recently, the month of December proved one of the most troublesome months in the past year — with 135 reported overdoses and two deaths. The trend continued in 2021, as the first weekend in January recorded 19 overdoses, with three deaths, according to the sheriff’s office.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco says the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the county’s substance abuse and mental health problems because more people are dealing with job and financial losses, loneliness, homelessness and other personal struggles.
“We’re definitely seeing an extremely high spike since COVID hit with mental health and substance abuse, and especially the overdoses. There is an absolute correlation there,” Nocco recently told The Laker/Lutz News.
Overdose survivors have told deputies that “they feel like they’ve lost human connection with people,” Nocco said.
Instead of finding solace in faith, Nocco thinks many turn to substance abuse, and that, he said, is creating major issues.
During the midst of a pandemic, there are mental health issues occurring that won’t be healed with a vaccination, he said.
“People right now, they’re constantly on edge,” Nocco said.
These overdoses, Nocco said, are mostly related to heroin and other drugs laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic similar to morphine but believed to be 50 times to 100 times more potent.
Said Nocco: “Heroin and fentanyl are the main two killers. When you’re seeing overdoses, it’s fentanyl. It’s sad. When you have an overdose and people pass away, it’s probably more likely than not that it’s fentanyl.”
Nocco noted the agency has even witnessed instances of carfentanil — an analogue 100 times stronger than fentanyl and most commonly used as an elephant tranquilizer.
Aside from its users, fentanyl and carfentanil offshoots pose a threat to the public and to first responders, as they can be absorbed through the skin or through accidental inhalation of airborne powder.
These substances are coming in from overseas, with stronger and stronger variations being discovered on the streets, Nocco said, adding, “It’s a very dangerous situation we’re dealing with.”
The overdoses predominantly are occurring in the western part of Pasco County, along the U.S. 19 corridor, Nocco said, but there are also pockets of activity in Land O’ Lakes, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills.
A nationwide problem
Rising drug overdoses are trending across the nation.
Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020. That’s the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While overdose deaths already were on the rise in the months preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic, the CDC reports.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said, in a December news release. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”
According to the CDC, synthetic opioids (primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl) appear to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths, increasing 38.4% from the 12-month period leading up to June 2019 compared with the 12-month period leading up to May 2020. During this time period:
- 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data reported increases in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths
- 18 of these jurisdictions reported increases greater than 50%
- 10 western states reported over a 98% increase in synthetic opioid-involved deaths
More troubling trends
While overdose figures were substantially higher in 2020 compared to 2019 and some previous years in Pasco, the sheriff’s office’s intelligence-led policing unit likewise found a steady increase each year since 2017, which, of course, predates the pandemic.
This may result from lasting effects of Florida’s opioid prescription pill epidemic, Nocco said, with many users who initially got hooked on prescription pills turning to heroin, meth and other substances to get their fix.
“We’re still dealing with it. It’s not over,” the sheriff said of the statewide pill crisis. “You’re looking at individuals that would’ve never used hard drugs such as meth or heroin, but because they were prescribed Roxys (Roxicodone), Oxys (Oxycodone), Xanax for minor things like a minor surgery, a tooth issue, something like that, they then became addicts, and so those people with those addictions, they’re still suffering right now.”
To tackle these various substance abuse and related mental health issues, the local law enforcement agency is continuing to leverage its community-based health partners such as BayCare, Chrysallis Health and Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse and Prevention, and others.
The sheriff’s office has a rolodex of health care agencies that can provide help with a range of issues, including mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, youth and family services, autism, suicide, and veterans and post-traumatic stress. More details on resources can be found on PascoSheriff.com/MENTALHEALTH.html.
“We want to get to people before they get to that crisis stage,” Nocco said, adding, “and if people are starting to feel depressed, if they’re starting to feel issues and concerns, please reach out to those resources immediately.
“If those health care issues are dealt with very early on, they don’t turn into criminal justice issues,” he said.
The CDC also has made recommendations that can help curb drug overdose epidemic in local communities:
- Expand distribution and use of naloxone and overdose prevention education
- Increase awareness about and access to and availability of treatment for substance use disorders
- Intervene early with individuals at highest risk for overdose
- Improve detection of overdose outbreaks to facilitate more effective response
On a related note, the sheriff’s office is working to make positive lasting impressions on the younger people, to help get a grip of at-risk mental health and substance use issues.
The agency has partnered with the Pasco County Council Parent Teacher Association (PTA) on a mental health initiative titled, “You Matter,” which mainly focuses on suicide prevention among juveniles. Part of the effort involves distributing magnets with upbeat reminders that can be attached to cellphones and wallets, and other places.
The sheriff said his agency is trying to get this message out to teenagers and young adults: “You matter in life.”
The fact is that many of these kids are isolated, Nocco said.
“They’re on their phones and they don’t feel like they’re engaged with what’s going on.
“I understand a lot of people go on social media and walk away depressed thinking about what they read or if somebody put a negative comment on there,” he said.
He wants to spread the word, to help people realize their value.
“It doesn’t matter what somebody wrote about you, you matter to somebody else, and your life is important.
“We don’t want to see people harm themselves or get an addiction over a comment made on social media by somebody who could live a couple of thousand miles away,” Nocco said.
Published February 03, 2021