Opioids are killing us; fight it like Zika

Miami Herald Editorial Board

The Zika epidemic in Miami-Dade is pretty much over and done with, Gov. Rick Scott announced on Thursday.

Now another scourge with a higher human toll is showing up on our radar — an epidemic of opioid overdoses. As we close out 2016, things will likely only get worse in 2017 with this crisis.

The county must brace itself. Law enforcement must attack. Social-service agencies must prepare.

Miami’s not alone. This is a growing problem across the country, highlighted recently when two parents in the city of East Liverpool, Ohio, were photographed overdosed in the front seat of their car as their toddler watched from his car seat in the back.

But a report by Herald writer David Ovalle brings to focus how serious the problem is in Miami-Dade — and the “hot zone’ are the streets of Overtown, the zip code where 43 percent of the deaths have occurred.

Thirty years ago, the drug would have been crack. Now, it’s a dangerously laced old drug — heroin — that’s creating havoc — and we should combat it with the zeal that the county and state brought to the fight against Zika.

The Herald report shows that opioid addicts are overdosing in staggering numbers across Miami-Dade. Most of the victims aren’t from that poor, predominantly black community. They’re young, white and Hispanic users who go there for cheap packets of heroin known on the street as “boys” that go for as little as $10 at drug dens. The color of the users’ skin should not make the problem more urgent in the eyes of those who can help. It’s unfortunate that African-American addicts have traditionally been treated more harshly and seen as less sympathetic.

First responders know better than anyone how bad it’s gotten in Miami-Dade.

And thanks to an antidote known as Narcan that they carry in their trucks, paramedics in Miami and Miami-Dade are playing God everyday — saving potential overdosers’ lives with an injection of the drug that stirs victims back to consciousness.

Still, drug users are overdosing in staggering numbers.

Through the first nine months of 2016, Miami Fire-Rescue injected Narcan nearly 1,700 times citywide. The article described it as a “stunning increase.” In all of 2015, they only used the life-saving drug 771 times.

The larger Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue also saw a dramatic increase in the first nine months of 2016, using the drug 966 times, up from 634 all of the year before. And in the first nine months of 2016, the Miami Fire-Rescue stations used Narcan nearly 1,000 times — almost double the rate of last year.

They reach the lucky ones. Many end up in a morgue, likely overdosing alone: Since 2015, there have been 236 overdose deaths in Miami-Dade.

All these deaths and overdoses come with collateral damage to any community, but drug use is an unsympathetic crime. Families, hospital, the legal system and jails are burdened by this serious problem. No outcry for help for these addicts is likely to emerge out of the community.

Something is being done. In the past couple of months, Miami police detectives, along with federal and county counterparts, have quietly arrested more than two dozen of drug-gang lieutenants in a campaign called Operation Overtown-Swamp City. Miami-Dade’s drug court is sending scores of addicts a week into rehab. But prevention, too, is key. Otherwise, this epidemic will bite all of us harder than any Zika-infected mosquito.