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New numbers point to rough year ahead in Tampa Bay area for opioid epidemic

Health experts warn of drug 100 times stronger than fentanyl
Posted at 4:58 PM, Apr 18, 2019

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- New numbers foreshadow a worse year for overdoses nationwide as health experts warn of a super drug 100 times stronger than fentanyl.

In the first three months of 2018, Clearwater Fire & Rescue used the opioid reversal drug Narcan 60 times. But they used it 126 times during the same period this year. That's more than a 100-percent increase.

“Yeah, it’s ominous," said Pete Gushee, Assistant Fire Chief with Clearwater Fire & Rescue.

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Other Pinellas County agencies are seeing similar increases in Narcan use as well.

“My prediction is that at the end of this year and beginning of 2020, we’re going to see double the rate of Narcan administration," Gushee said.

Ellen Snelling with the Hillsborough County Anti-drug Alliance tells ABC Action News she's seeing much of the same.

“It’s still just as bad as its been in the last couple of years. I don’t see this letting up," she said.

Gushee isn't sure what the solution is whether it's more education, tougher crackdowns or further changes in how doctors prescribe pain medication.

“It’s a bigger problem that transcends the fire service and needs to be seriously looked at by some people with a lot more letter behind their name than me,” Gushee said.

While Snelling isn't seeing any improvements out in the streets when it comes to the opioid epidemic, she is hopeful of the future. She points to new policy-change efforts to curb the epidemic, such as the 2018 Florida law that limits most opioid prescriptions to three-days, reducing the supply.

Meanwhile, national health experts warn of a super drug making its rounds, carfentanil.

“It’s just very scary— it killed my brother so I wouldn’t want that to happen to anybody else," Snelling said.

Carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl. The drug is meant to sedate large exotic animals like elephants. Just 0.02 milligrams is enough to kill a human.

“Part of what I see as a problem is people’s perception that they’re junkies, they’re overdosing, who cares?” explained Snelling.

She warns the faces of the opioid epidemic transcends age, class, race and nearly every other category.

Carfentanil is far from unfamiliar to the Bay Area. Back in 2016, Manatee County was at the epicenter of the powerful drug. It got so bad they ran out of space at the morgue.

Carfentanil seems more active on Florida's East Coast. However, it hasn't disappeared from the Bay Area. Lakeland Police have reported one recent case. It's difficult to get a bigger picture of the current use of carfentanil here because toxicology reports, which would positively identify the drug, can take up to six months to complete. Because of this, there's a big delay in the data.

Gushee and other health experts pray carfentanil won't make a comeback. Gushee also can't help but wonder what's next.

“Ten years from now, are you going to look at carfentanil and go, 'that was nothing compared to what we are looking at now?'" he said.