Jacksonville Medical Examiner's Office Hit Hard By Opioid Epidemic

Feb 2, 2017

Medical examiner Dr. Valarie Rao and Lt. Mark Rowley, with Jacksonville Fire Rescue Division, joined First Coast Connect to discuss the region's opioid epidemic and spike in overdoses.
Credit Kevin Meerschaert / WJCT News

A public health crisis spinning out of control.

That’s how Dr. Valarie Rao, medical examiner for Florida’s 4th District, describes North Florida's opioid epidemic. The district encompasses Duval, Clay, Nassau, Hamilton and Columbia Counties.

Rao said the number of local overdoses due to opioid abuse is on such a dramatic increase that the freezer where bodies are stored awaiting an autopsy is filled to capacity.

"We have had so many cases," she said. "And these are young people dying, unaware of what they're buying on the street."

Rao said the rapidly growing use of fentanyl is part of the large spike in opioid deaths. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine, but is 50 to 100 times more potent. 

The number of bodies piling up at the morgue due to overdoses is so large, Rao said her office has had to tell hospitals and funeral homes they need to keep bodies there until space is made available.

In 2016 there were 544 opioid-related deaths in the district. Since 2014, the number of paramedic calls in North Florida responding to overdoses has tripled, according to JFRD.

 

First Coast Connect host Melissa Ross can be reached at mross@wjct.org or on twitter @melissainjax