Drugs like fentanyl are now killing Floridians far faster than heroin and, as America’s opioid epidemic worsened, more Americans died from drug overdoses in one year than were killed in all of the Vietnam War, figures released this week show.
The data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 1,566 Floridians died from a class of drugs that includes fentanyl in 2016, up sharply from the 610 people the year before. Heroin deaths increased from 567 to 669 in the same time period, the slowest rate of increase since 2010.
Drug overdoses were blamed for almost 64,000 deaths across the United States, up more than 11,000 from the year before. Opioids accounted for about two-thirds of the overdose deaths. The National Archives said all the years of the Vietnam War killed about 58,000 Americans.
The overdose deaths helped push American life expectancy down for the second year in a row, the first time this happened in more than half a century, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reported.
The CDC’s numbers are significantly lower than other counts. For its “Heroin: Killer of a generation” special section, The Palm Beach Post relied on medical examiner reports to document the deaths of 216 people from heroin-related overdoses in 2015.
That year, the CDC’s count for the county was lower, with heroin, fentanyl and several other opioids tied to 137 deaths; the death count more than doubled the next year, to 293. The CDC’s 2016 numbers put Palm Beach County as the second-highest in the state for opioid-related deaths, close behind Jacksonville’s Duval County.
In Palm Beach County, the CDC figure shows, deaths linked to heroin climbed from 70 to 78. A category of synthetic narcotics that includes fentanyl and its derivatives, however, was cited in 37 deaths in 2015, rising to 218 the next year.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records found 571 deaths linked to heroin and related drugs in 2016, a Palm Beach Post analysis showed.
In November, Palm Beach County’s medical examiner, Dr. Michael Bell, said that “We are the epicenter for certainly fentanyl, fentanyl analogs and heroin overdoses.”
Justin Kunzelman, CEO of Rebel Recovery Florida, said the gulf between heroin and fentanyl-like drugs will continue to widen, and deaths will continue to increase. His organization has been supplying naloxone, also known as Narcan, which can reverse opioid overdoses, to reduce the harm.
“We’ve saved 30 lives in three months,” Kunzelman said Thursday.
Without such interventions, Palm Beach County’s death toll would be far worse, Kunzelman said. Rebel Recovery’s naloxone is typically administered from one drug user to another.
Other agencies are distributing naloxone to front-line workers. Less than two years ago, Delray Beach police officers began carrying naloxone to save lives; their first success came less than a day into the program. Other agencies, including the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, have refused to issue the medication.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg told members of Congress this month that the county’s “Florida shuffle” is making people rich. Palm Beach County has been widely marketed as a place to get sober. But the industry has been widely tied to crimes, including insurance fraud and drug use.
“This is a relapse model. Not a recovery model,” Aronberg said.