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Rural Florida County shocked by fentanyl deaths during holiday season

TALLAHASSEE, FL. – A small, largely rural county west of the Florida capital has seen an unprecedented rise in fatal drug overdoses believed to be caused by fentanyl mixed with other illicit drugs, a sign that the The national problem is becoming ever more far-reaching.

In all of 2021, Gadsden County had just 10 overdoses, Sheriff Morris Young said. He didn’t remember it being fatal. The state had even turned down a grant application to treat fentanyl overdoses because the county of about 43,700 people could not positively identify cases of the powerful synthetic opioid.

Then last Friday Calls to emergency services began to flood in. Nine people died over the bank holiday weekend and another nine were treated for suspected fentanyl overdoses. It’s the latest in a string of fentanyl-related deaths across the country.

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“It shocked the entire community. I feel their pain,” Young said Wednesday. “I’m really treating this like there’s a hurricane hitting town. It means so much to me that we were able to lose people in such a short amount of time.”

Gadsden County is best known for its vegetable and cattle farms, historic Southern buildings and antique shops. Many families have known each other for generations. County commission chairman Ron Green said among the families of victims he knows are the children of a woman in her 60s who died over the weekend.

“They didn’t even realize their mother was back on drugs,” Green said. “This brought them alarming news. Unfortunately it is too late.”

While the victims were 34 or older, Green worries younger people could be at risk “if we can’t hurry up and get it off the streets.”

Fentanyl can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, and dealers mix it with other illegal drugs to increase their addiction. Law enforcement officials say most sufferers don’t know it’s in the illegal drugs they buy — in amounts that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise be fatal.

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The problem has become so acute that three months ago the US Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about so-called “mass overdose events.” Dozens of deaths have been cited in more than half a dozen clusters in places ranging from the small town of Cortez, Colorado, which has fewer than 9,000 residents, to large cities like Washington, DC, in recent months

DISC Village is a nonprofit drug treatment center with services throughout Florida’s Big Bend, the collection of counties where the Panhandle meets the state’s peninsula. It includes Gadsden County as well as Tallahassee, the state capital.

“In the past six months, I’ve experienced the highest number of drug overdoses since I’ve worked here,” said Jennifer Travieso, who has worked at DISC for 17 years. “It’s definitely fentanyl and it’s in drugs that we wouldn’t expect to be in, like cocaine or marijuana or methamphetamine.”

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“For the fentanyl and other opioid dealers, they want to make sure people get hooked to keep their sales going,” Young said.

He gave an example of how powerful addiction can be. One of the men treated for an overdose on Friday was released from a hospital on Sunday to return Tuesday after suffering a second overdose. Young said he helped the same man find a job about a month ago.

“That’s the scary part,” Young said. “These people, despite the fear of the fentanyl and that they might die, will still take the risk of going out and getting these drugs. These are some of the addicts that are really, really addicted.”

He said investigators were trying to trace the source of the fentanyl-laced drugs. He believes it arrived in the county prepackaged, so it’s possible local dealers weren’t aware they were selling fentanyl. Either way, he wants severe penalties for those involved.

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“We hope to turn these cases into homicides,” Young said.

Young and other law enforcement officials plan to meet with officials from the Department of Children and Families and the state’s Surgeon General on Thursday to discuss how to address the issue.

Young said rescue workers have access to overdose treatments like naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, but MPs don’t. He said he wanted to get the supplies into the hands of his officers immediately and have them trained in their use.

“Fentanyl wasn’t even on my radar, and that changed around 9 p.m. Friday night,” Young said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/07/06/rural-florida-county-shocked-by-fentanyl-deaths-over-holiday/ Rural Florida County shocked by fentanyl deaths during holiday season

Sarah Y. Kim

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