QUINCY, Fla. — Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials said Thursday that officers are "working feverishly” to prevent another mass fentanyl poisoning.
That's after a county in the Panhandle had 19 overdoses of the potent synthetic opioid over the holiday weekend.
Nine have since died, authorities reported during a roundtable discussion on the case in Gadsden County, where the overdoses happened in a span of four days.
It stunned local authorities. The sheriff told reporters that fentanyl "wasn’t even in my vocabulary" before last Friday.
"Gadsden was not prepared for this,” said Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young. "It hit us like a ton of bricks."
Young said the investigation into where the drugs came from and who was responsible was ongoing. But the poisoning was the latest incident in a growing problem across the Sunshine State.
Coming in from outside the U.S., synthetic opioids like fentanyl are showing up more often in street drugs and counterfeit pills that look like the real thing. Just a little bit of the drug can kill, experts said.
"Too many individuals are losing their lives because of illicit drugs and substance abuse," First Lady Casey DeSantis, who hosted the roundtable, said. "Fentanyl overdose is the leading cause of death in the nation for individuals ages 18 to 45. It is primarily being manufactured in China and pouring across our southern border."
The latest Centers for Disease Control data showed Florida had more than 4,700 deaths from synthetic opioids in 2020. That's a near 64% increase from 2019.
"Every part of this affects us all," said Mark Glass, FDLE Acting Commissioner. "This isn't a law enforcement issue. This is a whole community issue."
To crack these cases, Glass said law enforcement needed tips from the public. He urged people to speak up.
"You may think it's nothing — it's just a family member that's got this counterfeit pill — or we think it's a counterfeit pill," Glass said. "That may be the whole thing. We do the backtrack, and the investigation leads — that may bring down the whole network, which will save more lives."
Florida Health, meanwhile, said it would start focusing more on awareness. Officials planned to launch a statewide advisory on the dangers of fentanyl with a focus on prevention and recovery resources.
Lawmakers also took some action on opioid abuse during the legislative session. They approved HB 95, which increased penalties for trafficking things like fentanyl. Critics, however, worried it didn't do enough to address core issues like addiction.