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Fentanyl Overdose Crisis Rages On During Pandemic

Rhonda Moates holds a picture of her son Kevin Wynn from when he was a toddler. Wynn, 28, died in August from a fentanyl overdose.
Rhonda Moates
Rhonda Moates holds a picture of her son Kevin Wynn from when he was a toddler. Wynn, 28, died in August from a fentanyl overdose.

Officials say the pandemic and dealers who mix fentanyl with other drugs have contributed to the increase in overdose deaths in Florida.

The knock on Rhonda Moates’ door came on Aug. 12. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office told her something she had feared for years, but still wasn’t prepared to hear: her 28-year-old son Kevin Wynn had overdosed.

“They came and told me that he had passed,” Moates said. “At seven that morning they had found him and he had died of an overdose of fentanyl.”

Her son was addicted to opioids. He had taken heroin that was laced with the extremely powerful synthetic opioid.

“They measure fentanyl in micrograms,” Moates said. “We’re talking grains of salt.”

Since Wynn’s death, Moates has been working to spread awareness about the dangers of opioids and especially fentanyl.

Between 2015 and 2019, overdose deaths from the drug increased by 250% in Florida.

A chart showing Fentanyl overdose deaths compared to other drugs.
Florida Department of Health
Overdose deaths from fentanyl have increased at a much faster rate compared to other drugs.

In 2019, fentanyl was present in over 3,200 of the state's 5,000 overdose deaths, according to data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2020, the number of overdose deaths climbed to 7,500. Though officials have not yet released how many of those deaths involved fentanyl, they say use of the drug continued to increase during the coronavirus pandemic with deadly results.

More Deadly Than Others

A majority of people using fentanyl have an opioid dependence. But its potency -- it is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine -- makes it much deadlier than other drugs.

“People do a certain amount of heroin and they know what their tolerance is,” said Dianne Clarke, co-chair of the Pinellas County Opioid Task Force. “And then fentanyl has a totally different structure to it, totally different effects. They think they're going to do the same amount, and they die.”

That’s what Moates said likely happened to her son.

“I heard a lot of times ‘Mom, I’d never let that happen. I know what I’m doing,’” Moates said. “And with fentanyl, they really don’t. I know he didn’t plan on dying that night. I know he didn’t.”

Fentanyl is also spreading through other channels. In addition to heroin, drugs like cocaine and pills like Percocet, Oxycontin and Xanax are being cut with the synthetic opioid.

In November 2019, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public warning about such pills. The DEA reported that more than a quarter of pills seized across the nation in early 2019 contained traces of fentanyl.

“These aren't just people with opioid dependence who are dying,” Clarke said. “These are teenagers who think they're doing a Xanax and a beer, and they're not. And the thing with fentanyl is you don't get a second chance.”

Fentanyl’s Rise

Fentanyl wasn’t always as prevalent as it is now. It started to increase substantially in Florida after 2010.

Part of the reason for the rise in Fentanyl’s use is a hike in the cost of other opioids.

In 2011, Florida started monitoring prescription drugs to cut down on “doctor shopping,” or visiting multiple physicians to obtain multiple prescriptions.

As prescription drugs became harder to get, prices increased.

“As the supply went down the cost of primarily the 30 milligram oxycodone started skyrocketing, and this remains the drug of choice among people who are abusing opioids,” said Jon Essenburg, the vice president of medication assisted services at Operation PAR, a drug treatment program on the Gulf Coast. “People started going over to heroin, initially because it was cheaper. Then, when fentanyl started getting more widely introduced, and laced into the heroin that people were buying, they didn’t realize the potency of fentanyl and ended up overdosing because they just didn't know what to expect.”

And while overdoses and deaths have increased, Essenburg says more people have not been seeking help at Operation PAR. He thinks the coronavirus pandemic could have something to do with that.

The Pandemic’s Effect

Addicts are more isolated than ever, having less contact with their family and friends. On top of that, 12-step meetings were paused, churches shut down and some rehab programs shifted to telehealth models.

The pandemic also increased stressors like job loss and eviction that can be triggers for people who have an addiction. The stay-at-home orders may have played a part as well, according to Project Opioid, a coalition of businesses and faith leaders working to reduce opioid overdoses and deaths in Central Florida.

And while much of the country’s focus shifted to the coronavirus pandemic, less attention was given to increasing opioid deaths.

Initial estimates from Project Opioid show more than 1,200 Tampa Bay residents died from opioid use in 2020, exceeding the 1,024 deaths reported in 2019.

The group is working to reduce opioid overdoses and deaths by 50 percent in the next three years.

Rhonda Moates and others who have lost family members to overdoses are also working to bring focus back to the opioid crisis. Moates started a Facebook page to share her son Kevin Wynn’s story and provide others with information.

“You can make it through it, you can,” Moates said. “And if you have it in you to help other people, the more people who speak out, the better. I’m not ashamed that my son was an addict.”

Moates hopes that speaking about Kevin’s addiction will help remove some of the stigma around drug abuse so that others will seek help.

As the toll from fentanyl continues to grow, she knows that work is more important than ever.

“I miss him terribly, but I know that he knows I loved him. And I know he loved me,” Moates said. “And that’s not something that keeps me up at night.”

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.
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