Almost three years after Palm Beach County officials set out to combat the opioid epidemic, it looks like their efforts are paying off: The State Attorney’s Office reports there were 326 opioid deaths in 2018, down from 558 in 2017. That’s a 41 percent decline.
When the crisis started in 2012, 143 deaths were attributed to these addictive prescription drugs. Then there were 189 deaths in 2014, and 307 in 2015. They hit a peak of 569 in 2016.
That’s when county officials unleashed a stampede of lawyers, health officials, police and rehab specialists to tackle the scourge. Owners of rogue sober homes were arrested. Narcan, the nasal spray that halts an overdose, became widely used on patients by rescuers, and now can be purchased over the counter. And cities began hiring staff to work with people hooked on drugs, including Delray Beach, where the police department has its own social worker dedicated to the homeless and the addicted.
“We have cleaned up most of the problems in the industry,” State Attorney Dave Aronberg said Thursday. “This was a man-made crisis, years in the making, and preventable.”
In Broward, Dr. Craig Mallak, the medical examiner, said the county’s 2018 opioid death rate has not yet been compiled.
“We don’t have a final count yet as some cases are still outstanding,” Mallak wrote in an email. “I think the numbers will be down but am waiting for a final count.”
Miami-Dade’s numbers will be available in June, said Darren Caprara, director of operations at the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s office.
Other counties’ opioid problems paled in comparison to Palm Beach County’s, according to a county government report in 2017.
“In 2015, JFK Medical Center (in central Palm Beach County) alone had as many overdoses as all of Miami-Dade County and more than all but four Florida counties” the report said.
Contributing to the quantity and intensity of overdoses was the increased usage of fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller 100 times more potent than morphine, and carfentanil, 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
The epidemic led to an influx of addicted people to Palm Beach County. Touting the chance of recovery in the sunshine, private providers recruited out-of-state patients with lucrative insurance plans to South Florida.
County officials began working to combat the crisis with help from police, hospitals, criminal justice specialists and the rehab industry.
The county created a task force to tackle problematic sober homes, similar to halfway houses, where the formerly drug addicted transition back into society. Officials discovered fraud and abuse at many homes in Palm Beach County and began arresting unscrupulous owners for health-care fraud and illegal patient brokering.
Delray Beach, “ground zero for the rehab community,” according to Aronberg, hired a social worker in 2017 to reach out to addicts and help them recover. The social worker, Ariana Ciancio, said Thursday that she is on the phone daily with substance abuse treatment centers, sober homes, health care workers and jobs programs as part of her effort to find help for the addicted.
She said she is on the streets every day and stops to assist the city’s needy during every outing.
“Today I stopped 15 times,” she said. “Two people wanted to go to detox. One person needed a new backpack. I helped someone Uber to the health care district. One person had his bicycle stolen.”
Delray Beach’s efforts have also shown impressive results, according to police: In 2018, there were 245 overdoses, well below the 625 reported in 2017.
“I don’t see people thrown out of sober homes anymore, looking for a place to go,” Ciancio said.
But officials say the battle is not over, and some projects, years in the making, are about to come to fruition. The county, which has only about two dozen publicly funded detox beds, will soon open a 10-bed clinic with the Palm Beach County Health Care District at JFK Medical Center for people who overdose.