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Doctors Call For More Treatment As Orange County Heroin Deaths Rise

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Renata Sago/WMFE
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The Orange County Heroin Task Force was created last year.

Former heroin addict Blake Nickerson stood at the podium in the Orange County Board of Commissioner chambers Monday where the year-old heroin task force was meeting to discuss its latest strategies for ending the heroin epidemic that’s led to hundreds of deaths in the past five years.

“I was introduced to cocaine at age 21. It then progressed to methamphetamine, and then oxycodone and then, eventually, heroin, so I did the natural progression,” he said.

Data from the ninth district medical examiner show heroin-related deaths have gone up every year in Orange County and Osceola counties, from 19 in 2011 to 101 in the first half of last year. The majority of deaths were in Orange County, from 14 in 2011 to 82 in the first half of last year. While the sheriff’s office is focused on dismantling drug rings, doctors are focused on treatment the kind that helped Nickerson.

“Approximately 350 inmates inmates age any given time are in the jail that self-identify as heroin users and with numbers like this, we felt we needed to do something to help this group of individuals,” said Dr. Robert Buck of Orange County Corrections.

Buck and other officials consider the number low compared to the 2,179 heroin addicts who passed through the Orange County jail last year. Buck says fear of prosecution keeps them from getting treatment while there.

“We cannot force that population to participate in programming, but our goal is to at least have a very aggressive educational component,” added Cornita Riley, chief of the Orange County Corrections Department.

She and Buck hope to make treatment inside jail free and long-term, and to encourage more inmates to accept treatment. But other officials on the task force add that transitional treatment programs that include housing and drug availability will help prevent heroin overdoses and deaths.

The majority of heroin users who die of overdoses in Orange County are males between ages 25 and 35 years old.

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Renata Sago is a reporter with WMFE in Orlando. WMFE  is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.