The uptick in opioid deaths in Puerto Rico is a longer-term consequence of the damage wrought upon Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, which struck the U.S. territory in 2017. More than five dozen overdose-related deaths were reported in 2017, a seven-fold increase from the previous year. There were also over 600 fentanyl-related overdoses in 2017, though that’s just the official count.
A nurse who treats drug addicts in rural Puerto Rico told AP News that, based on her work experience, the real number is likely over triple the official count. Vargas Vidot, both a district senator and doctor who volunteers his time working in addiction medicine, shared his concern that the opioid epidemic in Puerto Rico has yet to be fully acknowledged. “I have never seen three to four deaths a week in just one neighborhood, in just one street … Everything changed immensely after Hurricane Maria.”
The program director of Intercambios, a needle exchange program, also observed an increase in overdoses following the storm and found that heroin has increasingly been laced with fentanyl. The Centers for Disease Control has found fentanyl to be far deadlier than heroin; nearly twice as many people die from overdoses tied to synthetic opioids like fentanyl than from heroin overdoses.
The DEA is aware that the official fatal overdose count is a far higher, but have little recourse to get an accurate count. According to the AP News report, Puerto Rican officials have been unable to keep a proper tally of the overdoses and overdose-related deaths, in part because of a lack of funding. The government missed a chance to apply for a large grant, a sum of nearly $8 million, that would have helped to fund the territory’s effort to manage a growing opioid crisis that the storm exacerbated.
Despair and Chaos Behind Spike in Overdose-Related Fatalities
This isn’t the first time that officials have vastly underestimated death tolls in Puerto Rico. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the official federal death toll was 64 — a number that did not do justice to the devastation that the storm wreaked on the island; it was abundantly clear that many more lives were lost than that. A study released by George Washington University last fall put the number of storm-related deaths in the thousands, a count that appropriately included storm-related deaths linked to power outages, water contamination, and lack of healthcare, among other immediate dangers that the community faced due to storm damage.
Some of these very same issues are tied to the growing opioid crisis on the island. Vargas cited a shortage in heroin imports, bureaucratic chaos, anxiety, and lapses in healthcare as catalysts behind the sudden increase in prescription opioid abuse. An inaccurate death toll will only serve to slow any action that the government might eventually take to address the matter.