Drug-related deaths declined by 5 percent and opioid-caused deaths decreased by 13 percent during the first six months of 2018 compared to the previous year, but deaths caused by fentanyl spiked by 64 percent, according to a report from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission (MEC).
Overall, the MEC’s interim report documents that Florida medical examiners reported 107,570 deaths statewide between January-June 2018. Of those deaths, toxicology results determined 5,922 cases – about 5.5 percent – involved drugs, including ethanol [alcohol] poisoning.
The report distinguishes between “drug-related” deaths and “drug-caused” deaths.
“The medical examiners assessed whether the drug(s) identified was the cause of death or merely present at the time of death,” it states. “It is important to note that each death is a single case, while each time a drug is detected represents an occurrence. The vast majority of the 5,922 deaths had more than one drug occurrence.”
The MEC said in its report that a drug is indicated as the cause of death “only when, after examining all evidence, the autopsy, and toxicology results, the medical examiner determines the drug played a causal role in the death.”
Of the 5,922 drug-related/caused deaths, 3,301 died with one or more prescription drugs in their system, according to the report. “These drugs may have also been mixed with illicit drugs and/or alcohol,” it states.
The report documents that “total drug-related deaths” decreased by 5 percent, from more than 6,200 during the first six months of 2017 to 5,922 during the same span in 2018.
There were 2,773 opioid-related deaths reported, a 10-percent decrease – 312 fewer – during the first six months of 2018 with 1,841 opioid-caused deaths reported, a 13-percent decrease, or 279 fewer, than the first six month of 2017.
Within specific categories of opioids, oxycodone deaths between January-June 2018 totaled 587 with 275 “caused” and 312 “related” to the drug.
St. Petersburg led the state with 36 deaths directly attributed to oxycodone, followed by Melbourne with 27, West Palm Beach with 23, Miami 22, Tampa 21 and Lakeland 20.
Of those 275 deaths caused by oxycodone, nearly half – 132 – claimed victims 50-years-old or older with 105 between 35-50 years old.
Hydrocodone-caused deaths between January-June 2018 totaled 78 – 39 claiming victims 50-years-old or older – and morphine-caused deaths totaled 543.
Tampa led the state with 60 deaths directly attributed to morphine, followed by Jacksonville with 53, West Palm Beach 48, Daytona Beach 47 and St. Petersburg 45.
Although the numbers present a decline in opioid caused/created deaths, it is uncertain how initiatives passed by the Legislature the last two years contributed to the decline since they went into effect after June 2018.
In May 2017, then-Gov. Rick Scott declared opioid abuse a state crisis after the state’s Department of Health reported heroin caused 952 deaths, fentanyl 1,390 deaths, oxycodone 723 deaths and hydrocodone caused 245 deaths in 2016.
In March 2018, Scott signed into law a $65 million package of laws that limited opioid prescriptions to no more than seven days and made it mandatory for doctors to check a data base – the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program – to verify a patient’s history before writing a script for any controlled substance.
Also approved in 2018:
• $14.6 million for residential treatment beds, outpatient treatment and case management, emergency room treatment and follow up, peer recovery support services and targeted outreach for pregnant women with substance abuse disorders.
• $27 million in federal funding from the Opioid State Targeted Response Grant.
• $16.5 million for Department of Children and Families, and Department of Corrections to treat opioid addiction
This year, among bills adopted by Florida lawmakers to augment the state’s 2018 initiatives is a needle-exchange program and the establishment of an opioid task force headed by state Attorney General Ashley Moody.
“It’s encouraging to see drug-related deaths going down in Florida. Unfortunately, fentanyl-related deaths are on the rise,” Moody tweeted in response to the MEC report. “As Chair of Florida’s Opioid Task Force, I will continue to fight the national opioid epidemic taking 17 lives a day in our state.”
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine, caused 1,101 deaths in Florida during the first half of 2018 – more than any other drug – followed by cocaine, which caused 844 deaths, and benzodiazepines, which killed 559 people, according to the report.
Of the 1,101 fentanyl-caused deaths between January-June 2018, 140 were reported in Ft. Lauderdale, 131 in West Palm Beach, 119 in Jacksonville, 116 in Orlando and 91 in Ft. Myers.
Fentanyl victims tended to be younger than those whose deaths were caused by other opioids with 449 between the ages of 35-50 and 344 between 18-25 years old.