Manatee County paramedics says heroin crisis spiraling out of control
MANATEE — The 38-year-old man was sitting on the floor of a bathroom stall in the Manatee County Department of Health. A needle had already been picked up off the ground nearby, and the remains of a dose of heroin were shoved into the toilet.
“I was trying to take something, just to take away the mental …” he started to explain to paramedics.
“Something what?” interrupted a first responder from Bradenton Fire Rescue. “Something, heroin? Something, what? Help me out, bud.”
“I can’t even think straight,” he told them.
“Where are you at right now?” they asked.
“At my mom and dad’s house.”
“They don’t live in the Health Department. That’s where you’re at, you’re in the Health Department bathroom.”
“So what’d you take?” asked Scott Kemp, district chief with Manatee County Emergency Medical Services. “We know you took something, man, so just help us out. Heroin?”
After a few more questions, the man was helped to his feet and onto a stretcher, loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital Wednesday, another statistic in Manatee’s heroin epidemic.
Suspected overdose calls increased 106 percent from 339 in 2013 to 700 in 2014, and another 31 percent to 918 through July, according to Manatee County Emergency Medical Services.
Suspected heroin overdose deaths in Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto counties have increased 137.5 percent from eight people in 2012 to 19 in 2013, and another 231 percent to 63 in 2014, to 86 through mid-June, according to Dr. Russell Vega, chief medical examiner for the 12th Judicial District.
“I can’t tell you how many we have currently pending as our more recent ‘suspicious’ cases from late June to now have not been tabulated yet,” Vega said. “Though I can tell you that the last few weeks have brought in a lot of such cases.”
Officials familiar with the Manatee County drug problem say the issue is a heroin-fentanyl mixture. Fentanyl, a powerful painkiller officials have described as 80 times more potent than morphine, makes heroin stronger and much more deadly.
July has been a particularly nasty month in Manatee County with 259 overdoses, including 57 over the three-day Fourth of July weekend. That’s a 1,424 percent increase between July 2014 and July. Four in July were dead on arrival.
Of overdose victims this year, 400 were between the ages of 20 and 39, 62 percent were men and 369 were concentrated around 14th Street West and U.S. 41. The issue spans all ages and areas of the county.
Manatee County EMS rushed to several overdose scenes Wednesday in what has become just another typical day here.
Around 11 a.m., paramedics showed up at a home in south Bradenton to find a 39-year-old man with a drug history dead from an apparent overdose. They left his body with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. There was nothing they could do.
About 3 p.m., they showed up to G.T. Bray Park in West Bradenton to reports a woman had overdosed in a bathroom. EMS had been called after four children with her began hitting the locked door to the bathroom and yelling for their mother. The woman came out conscious and tried to take her children, but paramedics called her father to have him pick them up instead. The woman is pregnant.
Those are just a few snapshots of the flood of overdose calls so far in 2015. And it isn’t slowing down.
“There’s a patient we have that overdoses every third day, almost every third day. It’s to the point that her mom already knows what she’s doing,” said Jorge Jaime, a Manatee County paramedic. “She comes to the garage, finds her (daughter) lying on the ground, calls us, we give her Narcan and she comes back. And she always apologizes, every time, for overdosing.”
Repeats are common, according to Kemp. Procedure says when paramedics encounter an unconscious overdose victim, they administer Narcan, a drug that blocks the effects of heroin and stops an overdose almost immediately. Once the victim wakes up, they are taken to the hospital for two hours to ensure they’re OK after the Narcan wears off. Then they’re released back to the street.
Many overdose again, sometimes within hours.
Several paramedics say the problem comes in waves. Overdoses started piling up near the end of 2014, tapered off in April, and in July it was worse than ever, according to Kelly Spires, an in-charge paramedic with Manatee County EMS.
“It’s just gone gangbusters. Last Sunday, I ran three overdoses in a row, back-to-back-to-back, and then I had another later,” he said. “I’ve never run four overdoses in one shift. Three or four years ago, I might’ve run three overdoses in an entire year.”
Each overdose victim typically needs one dose of Narcan, but lately it’s taken two or three doses sometime. With Narcan costing $80 per dose, the price tag is up to $73,440 to the county so far in 2015.
It’s a subject of frustration to everyone in medical services. Steve Krivjanik, chief of Manatee County EMS, has been pushing for action on the epidemic for months, and at this point isn’t sure what else he can do.
“I keep hoping if I get on the roof of this building and shout, ‘This is a crisis!’ Then something will eventually be done,” Krivjanik said, shaking his head.
Paramedics say most overdose victims they treat are well aware of the risks associated not just with heroin use in general, but the specific problem in Manatee County.
“Nine times out of 10, I ask them: ‘Do you know this is killing people?'” Spires said. “And they say, ‘Yeah.'”
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby
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