Seminole County Sheriff warns of growing number of opioid deaths

County sees 73 deaths this year, on pace to surpass last year’s overdose death toll

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – The opioid crisis is tightening its grip in Seminole County, according to the sheriff.

So far, the sheriff’s office has recorded 73 overdose deaths this year. During a news conference on Tuesday, Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma said the county was on pace to surpass the 80 deaths recorded in 2020.

“We’ve seen unprecedented amounts of overdoses,” Lemma said. “Right now we’re spiking in overdoses, not only here in Seminole County but across the state of Florida.”

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Lemma stressed that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the drug crisis, forcing deputies with the Seminole County Sheriff Office to use Narcan on more than 500 people since Jan. 1

“Or, another way to say that — we brought more than 500 people back to life with the use of this drug,” he said, with a dose of Narcan in his hand.

Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, is a medicine that can partially reverse an opioid overdose. The nasal spray has gained popularity as law enforcement agencies started responding to drug overdose calls with the antidote.

[RELATED: First responders leaving behind Narcan after responding to overdoses]

However, Lemma said deputies armed with Narcan are no longer enough to curb the crisis.

“You can’t arrest your way out of these problems,” he said. “We as a society have a role to play as well.”

Here are the ways the sheriff says the community can help.

Know about Narcan

During the news conference, Lemma touted the importance of Narcan adding people should know where to get it and how to use it.

“This drug is now available without a prescription,” he said, adding people can get it at pharmacies across Florida over the counter. Lemma said pharmacists can also provide a quick lesson on how to use it.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “Don’t squirt it in your eyes. Put it in a person’s nose, spray it and it’ll bring it back.”

The sheriff said it’s not just important for public servants to know about them but for drug users, potential drug users, and their loved ones to be aware of how to use the antidote.

“Whoever it may be, it is incredibly important for you to have this in your hand,” the sheriff said.

Lemma said a dose of Narcan is about $40 with two doses just under $80.

[WATCH: ‘The Weekly’ The Opioid Crisis: The epidemic within the coronavirus pandemic]

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Have tough conversations

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sheriff’s office partnered with Project Opioid to collect data and learned there are 60,000 people in Central Florida that were dependent on a substance that did not fall into four common categories in which researchers classify those afflicted with addiction.

The sheriff explained those four categories are overdose hospitalizations, people seeking addiction recovery help, those who may have faced drug charges or those who died by overdose. This means there are 60,000 people who could potentially fall under one of those groups, the sheriff said.

“These numbers are in a county that has robust and collaborative services to address this,” he said.

Lemma said people need to have tough conversations.

“You work it on two ends, you get the community advocacy and the help that they need and you hold the drug dealers accountable and responsible to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

Lemma said his deputies have noticed an increased presence of fentanyl in the county, often disguised as something else. As his agency works to crack down on the laws surrounding a cocktail of substances, he needs families to bring awareness that people overdosing don’t always know what they’re taking.

The sheriff also said people need to be aware of the consequences they could face if they get involved with opioids.

“If you kill somebody, if you sell deadly doses of narcotics, you’re going to face felony murder charges,” the sheriff said.

Good Samaritan Act

During the news conference, Lemma said every second counts when trying to save someone from an overdose. He added that sometimes, it’s up to the people around that individual to get them help.

“The greatest responsibility that we have as a civilized society is to protect and preserve human life,” Lemma said.

He pointed to the Good Samaritan Act which, in most cases, protects people from criminal prosecution when they try to seek life-saving help, regardless of illegal activity that may have escalated the situation.

“This Good Samaritan Law is incredibly important because we know that some people are on this journey. We want people to feel comfortable, call 911,” he said.

Because of the social stigma surrounding addiction, Seminole County leaders are hosting an overdose awareness event Saturday, from10 a.m. until noon at Reiter Park in Longwood.

News 6 checked with several sheriff’s offices and police departments across Central Florida and discovered the worsening opioid crisis is widespread.

The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office said the overdose calls have almost doubled over the past 12 months, from 40 to 69.

In Marion County, the sheriff’s office has already seen 74 overdose deaths this year, with 4 more months to go.

In Orlando, detectives have already investigated 30 deaths through June of 2021, compared to 34 in all of 2020.

Unincorporated Orange County is the only county that is not on track to outdo last year’s numbers. The rate of overdose deaths this year has dropped. Records show 255 people died last year compared to 145 already this year.

Since 2019, Seminole deputies have been going to the hospitals to be there as addicts wake up from an overdose. Then they guide addicts through treatment, check up on them and are available any time of day or night.

In Volusia County, the same thing happens, counselors from SMA healthcare rush to Halifax Health after an overdose and then encourage the addict to follow up with counseling across the street at SMA. County-wide, overdose deaths are down in 2020 188 this year compared to 191 at the same time last year; however, all overdoses are up from the same time last year, 1,308 in 2021 versus 1,161 in 2020.

In areas only covered by the sheriff’s office, overdose deaths are up, 59 in 2021 compared to 43 at the same time in 2020. Similarly with all overdoses, the sheriff’s office has seen 335 in 2021 compared to 313 at the same time last year.

An Ocala Fire Department captain started a program to bring Narcan to addicts when they call and ask for it. Firefighters drop off the overdose-reversing drug in less than an hour.

Orlando police started an overdose investigative unit going after the dealers selling the highly toxic fentanyl opioid.

Nancy Ackerman lost her teenage daughter Jessica to an overdose last year.

“If the gentleman she was with had called 911 as he was told to do, or taken her to the hospital, he lives five minutes from the hospital, she would have at least had a chance,” Ackerman said.

The man arrested for selling the fentanyl to Jessica is scheduled to be back in court next week for his murder charge.

Sheriff Lemma said he has 30 cases in the courts right now going after opioid dealers for murder. He’s also working to make the penalties for dealing even stricter.

About the Authors:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for News 6 and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting.