US, Florida overdose fatalities fall but deaths still at ‘historical high’ (2024)

YBOR CITY — Colt Baker was the kid who had to jump from the highest step. He broke the most skateboard decks among his friends. When he graduated to motorbikes, he would wheelie across bridges.

It was that way with drugs, too.

He went from smoking weed to taking heroin and methamphetamines, said his mother, Belle Amoroso. The Tampa tattoo artist, 37, had been sober for about 100 days when he overdosed on fentanyl on Jan. 12. He was found dead at a California rehab center.

“He was my world. He was my best friend,” Amoroso said. “And I learned years ago that there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t love him enough. I couldn’t change him.”

A surge in overdoses and deaths from drugs laced with fentanyl over the past decade has been dubbed the “fourth wave” of the nation’s opioid epidemic. But for the first time since 2018, the number of overdose deaths across the U.S. last year fell, with preliminary figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting roughly 107,000 deaths.

Overdose deaths in Florida dropped by 8% the same year, the CDC data shows, but that still left the state’s death toll at more than 7,300. Experts warn that fentanyl use remains a crisis that needs more resources. They say that addicts and those who dabble with illicit drugs are flirting with death.

“While the numbers went down, we’re still at historically high levels,” said Kent Mathias, an assistant professor in psychiatry and addiction medicine who serves as the inpatient attending physician at the University of Florida Health Psychiatric Hospital addiction unit.

US, Florida overdose fatalities fall but deaths still at ‘historical high’ (1)

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. And it’s cheaper, meaning makers of illicit drugs mix it with drugs like cocaine and heroin to increase profits and give buyers a more powerful high. It’s also made into pills that look like other prescription opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Its potency puts drug users at high risk of overdosing or death.

At the Gainesville hospital addiction unit, more than two-thirds of patients who thought they were buying other drugs were using fentanyl-laced substances, Mathias said. Some arrived for treatment thinking they had become addicted to oxycodone when they were actually fentanyl users.

“People tell me they trust their dealers and they’re confident and then it’s not what they thought,” he said.

Increased funding for drug education has contributed to the decline in overdose deaths, Mathias said. So has the wide availability of naloxone — commonly known as Narcan — which helps ease withdrawal symptoms. There’s also been an increased focus on drug monitoring and seizures. More than 115 million pills containing the substance were seized by law enforcement agencies in 2023.

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There is still more to do, Mathias said.

US, Florida overdose fatalities fall but deaths still at ‘historical high’ (3)

Mental health resources are overburdened in many communities, he said. Treatment guidelines for severe opioid addiction require residential care that is often unavailable or unaffordable, especially for uninsured patients.

He would like to see increased availability of long-acting injections of buprenorphine, known as Sublocade. The medication can suppress cravings and withdrawal symptoms for up to a month and also protects against overdoses in the event of a relapse. The treatment is covered by Medicaid in Florida but is not covered by many health insurance policies, Mathias said.

“Right now it’s easier for me to prescribe a month’s worth of fentanyl patches than it is to get them buprenorphine Sublocade,” he said. “We need to ensure insurance policies cover comprehensive addiction treatment.”

“More heavily addicted than we’ve ever seen”

Addicts who have just used or who ended up in the emergency room are among those who arrive at River Oaks Treatment Center, a residential alcohol and drug addiction rehab facility in Riverview.

Their clothes and belongings are searched intensively since even specks of fentanyl can produce a high. Cellphones are confiscated for the first 72 hours and contact numbers for dealers are deleted.

Treatment begins with a detox period and a psychiatric evaluation. Nurses conduct medical checks on the most at-risk patients every 15 minutes.

The center, which has 70 registered nurses and five physicians, can house up to roughly 130 patients. About 40% have had some exposure to fentanyl, said Michael Murphy, a board-certified addiction medicine specialist and the center’s medical director. Those patients can’t be given buprenorphine until fentanyl has left their system. That usually means a couple of days of withdrawal symptoms, like sweating, pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

US, Florida overdose fatalities fall but deaths still at ‘historical high’ (4)

The high potency of fentanyl makes treatment more difficult and lengthy since users develop a higher tolerance to opioids, Murphy said. A normal 8 milligrams a day of buprenorphine is no longer enough to stave off withdrawal symptoms. Some patients need daily doses as high as 32 milligrams.

“People are living on a razor’s edge,” he said. “They’re always just about to the point where they could die.”

The center’s 22-acre campus is quiet and serene. In addition to medical treatment, patients undergo group therapy and individual sessions with licensed therapists. They are encouraged to work out at the gym or walk the campus’ shaded trails. There are Alcoholics Anonymous meetings almost every evening as well as bingo and movie nights.

The average stay at the center is between 21 and 30 days, after which patients transition to out-patient treatment. Back in their normal environment, some relapse, especially when treatment is too expensive, Murphy said.

“When you make it hard to get treatment, then people choose the easy alternative, which is let’s go back to the drug because at least I’ll feel better,” he said.

Murphy said there is still a need for more comprehensive education about fentanyl in schools and community centers. Schools, libraries, community centers and other public venues should have overdose treatment drug naloxone accessible.

Florida requires public colleges to have supplies but is not among the nine states that require at least high schools to stock the medication, according to a report by the Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association. Schools in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties do not stock or administer naloxone.

US, Florida overdose fatalities fall but deaths still at ‘historical high’ (5)

“She doesn’t see me grieve”

Before his death, Colt Baker talked openly about his struggle with drugs both in person and on his social media pages, hoping to help others, Amoroso said. His posts included inspirational messages about how he had recovered from being a “junkie.”

A second-generation tattoo artist, he often worked alongside his father, Doc Baker, and Amoroso at the Las Vegas Tattoo Co. in Ybor City. His gift as a tattooist also earned him work abroad.

He shared custody of his 2-year-old daughter, Belladonna Baker, with her mother.

“He made other people feel comfortable,” his mom said. “Like he could be with the owner of the yacht or he could be down in the hole with the grease monkey of the yacht. He was comfortable with everyone.”

Colt lifted weights and exercised as a way to bring discipline and balance to his life. He wrote on social media that “positive actions are the cure for anxiety and depression.” But he added, “Life is coming; you better be ready.” His death shows that even with rehab and support, there is no guarantee of overcoming addiction, Amoroso said.

Amoroso and her husband now care for Belladonna on the days when she used to be with her father. Amoroso takes the girl to Dinosaur World in Plant City, or for nature walks.

“Those days, I am the grandma,” Amoroso said. “She doesn’t see me grieve.”

The rest of the week is dark. She watches videos of her son. She writes to “release the pain.”

US, Florida overdose fatalities fall but deaths still at ‘historical high’ (6)

Amoroso organized a march to raise awareness of the dangers of fentanyl for Feb. 11, the day Colt should have turned 38. About 50 people walked down the center of Seventh Avenue in Ybor City carrying signs with messages like “You are not alone” and “1 pill kills.”

She plans to start a website that will serve as a one-stop place for anyone who needs information about fentanyl.

Being Colt’s mother taught her that there’s no point in asking “Why?” she said. She has shared the coping skills she learned with other parents through Nar-Anon Family Groups, a 12-step program for family and friends of addicts.

Amoroso also recently attended a retreat for mothers who have lost their children to violence, suicide or overdose. It was organized by Circle of Mothers.

“I have a choice to lay in bed and give up or carry on his legacy and help other people,” she said. “Colt’s the fuel, I’m the vehicle. I‘m going to help other people, a lot of people.”

US, Florida overdose fatalities fall but deaths still at ‘historical high’ (2024)


US, Florida overdose fatalities fall but deaths still at ‘historical high’? ›

Overdose deaths in Florida dropped by 8% the same year, the CDC data shows, but that still left the state's death toll at more than 7,300. Experts warn that fentanyl use remains a crisis that needs more resources. They say that addicts and those who dabble with illicit drugs are flirting with death.

Has the US topped 100000 overdose deaths? ›

Still, overdose deaths remain extremely high. More than 107,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2023, down from roughly 111,000 in 2022, the data showed. “More than 100,000 people died of overdoses in 2023.

Are overdose deaths a leading cause of injury related death in the United States? ›

Drug overdose deaths are a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Timely and comprehensive surveillance and evidence-based prevention and response strategies remain essential for reducing overdose deaths.

What is the recent rise in overdose deaths largely due to? ›

The overall rise in overdose deaths is largely attributable to the proliferation in the drug supply of illicit fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid. Though the benefits of providing medication for opioid use disorder are well-known, only 22% of people with opioid use disorder receive medications.

Is Oxycontin still available? ›

Oxycodone is only available on prescription. It comes as slow-release tablets, standard tablets and capsules, and a liquid that you swallow.

What is the name of the medicine that can reverse an overdose? ›

Naloxone is a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose. It attaches to opioid receptors and reverses and blocks the effects of other opioids.

Are drugs the third leading cause of death? ›

In 2013, I estimated that our prescription drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer,1 and in 2015, that psychiatric drugs alone are also the third leading cause of death. However, in USA, it is commonly stated that our drugs are “only” the fourth leading cause of death.

What is the leading cause of traumatic death in the United States? ›

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is the single largest cause of death from injury in the United States: 1,000,000 people with TBI per year in US: 230,00 hospitalized.

What is the leading cause of death in the United States for people in their 20s and 30s? ›

Injury and Violence Cause Most Deaths

The three leading causes of death for Americans in their 20s are tied to risky behavior and are largely preventable: accidents (unintentional injuries), homicide, and suicide.

Have drug overdose rates increased? ›

The age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths increased from 8.2 deaths per 100,000 standard population in 2002 to 32.6 in 2022; however, the rate did not significantly change between 2021 and 2022. Rates decreased between 2021 and 2022 for people ages 15–34 and increased for those age 35 and older.

Have fatal opioid overdoses in the US declined more than reported between 2017 and 2018? ›

There were 47,600 classified opioid overdose deaths in 2017 and 46,802 in 2018, a 1.7% decrease. The percent of unclassified drug overdoses declined from 12.3% (8,663) in 2017 to 8.0% (5,396) in 2018.

What is the most commonly reported drug overdose? ›

Percentages10 of overdose deaths involving select drugs and drug classes in 2022, Overall (30 jurisdictions) 81.8% of deaths involved at least one opioid and 57.1% involved at least one stimulant. Illegally-made fentanyls were the most commonly involved opioids.

How many overdose deaths in the US in 2018? ›

The number of drug overdose deaths in 2018 was 67,367. Access data table for Figure 1 at: SOURCE: NCHS, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality.

Are prescription drugs a leading cause of death? ›

Abstract. Our prescription drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer in the United States and Europe. Around half of those who die have taken their drugs correctly; the other half die because of errors, such as too high a dose or use of a drug despite contraindications.

What should you do after administering Narcan naloxone to someone? ›

Remove the nasal spray from the patient's nostril after giving the dose. Move the patient on their side (recovery position) after giving the medicine and get emergency medical help right away. Watch the patient closely.

How many people are addicted to drugs in the US? ›

Quick Facts on Drug Addiction

According to the 2022 United States National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH): 46.8 million (16.7%) Americans (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in the past year. 10.5% of Americans 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder in the past year.

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