TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A small, largely rural county west of Florida’s capital saw an unheard-of spike in deadly drug overdoses believed to be caused by fentanyl mixed with other illegal drugs, a sign that the national problem is becoming even more far-reaching.
In all of 2021, Gadsden County had just 10 overdoses, Sheriff Morris Young said. He couldn't recall any being fatal. The state had even rejected a grant application to treat fentanyl overdoses because the county of about 43,700 people couldn’t definitively identify any cases involving the powerful synthetic opioid.
Then last Friday, calls to emergency services began flooding in. Over the holiday weekend, nine people died and another nine were treated over suspected fentanyl overdoses. It's the latest in a rash of fentanyl deaths around the nation.
“It's shaken the entire community. I feel their pain,” Young said Wednesday. “I'm really treating this like we had a hurricane coming into town. It means that much to me that we could lose people in such a short period of time.”
Gadsden County is largely known for its vegetable and livestock 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 knew were the children of a woman in her 60s who died over the weekend.
“They didn't even realize their mother was using again,” Green said. “This brought an alarming notice to them. Unfortunately it's too late.”
While the victims were 34 or older, Green worries younger people could be endangered, “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 lace it in with other illegal drugs to boost their addictiveness. Law enforcement officials say most people affected don't know it's in the illegal drugs they're buying — in amounts that otherwise wouldn't necessarily be deadly.
The problem has become so acute that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning three months ago about what it called “mass-overdose events.” It cited dozens of deaths in more than a half-dozen clusters in recent months in locations ranging from the small town of Cortez, Colorado, with less than 9,000 residents, to major cities such as Washington, D.C.
DISC Village is a nonprofit drug treatment center with services throughout Florida's Big Bend, the cluster of counties where the Panhandle meets the state's peninsula. It includes Gadsden County as well as Tallahassee, the state capital.
“In these last six months I've seen the most overdoses that I've ever seen since I've been working here,” said Jennifer Travieso, who has worked at DISC for 17 years. “It's definitely fentanyl and it's in drugs we wouldn't expect it to be in, for example cocaine or marijuana or methamphetamines.”
“For the dealers, with fentanyl and other opioids, they want to make sure people get hooked to keep their sales up,” Young said.
He gave an example of just how powerful the addiction can be. One of the men treated for an overdose on Friday was released from a hospital Sunday, only to return after a second overdose on Tuesday. Young said he had helped the same man get a job about a month ago.
“This is the scary part,” Young said. “These people, even with the fear of the fentanyl and that they could die, they're still going to take a chance going out there and getting these drugs. These are some of the addicts that are truly, truly addicted.”
He said investigators are trying to trace the source of the drugs laced with fentanyl. 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 punishment for those involved.
“We're hoping to push these cases to murder cases," Young said.
Young and other law enforcement plan to meet Thursday with officials from the Department of Children and Families and the state's surgeon general to discuss how to address the problem.
Young said EMTs have access to overdose treatments like naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, but deputies do not. He said he wants to immediately get supplies in the hands of his officers and have them trained on their use.
“Fentanyl was not even on my radar, and that changed about 9 o’clock on Friday night,” Young said.