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WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

PolitiFact FL: DeSantis said overdose deaths have declined. Early data backs that up

Ron DeSantis greets people outside.
Hannah Fingerhut
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets people at Iowa State University before an NCAA college football game between Iowa State and Iowa, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Ames, Iowa.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that if elected president, he will send troops to the U.S. southern border to stem the flow of fentanyl into the country. He has vowed to use force and leave drug pushers "stone cold dead."

CNN’s Jake Tapper asked DeSantis about his plan’s legality during a Dec. 12 town hall. DeSantis’ long answer covered fighting demand for the drugs, providing treatment and focusing on supply.

In Florida, an opioid recovery network has reduced overdose deaths, DeSantis said.

"We're one of the only large states, in the country, where we can say we actually had a year-over-year reduction."

DeSantis did not mention a time frame for the reduction, but his campaign spokespeople said he was referring to a decrease from 2021 to 2022.

Opioid overdoses in Florida declined slightly from 2021 to 2022

Opioid overdose deaths were a growing problem in Florida for years before DeSantis became governor in January 2019.

According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Florida had an 8.2% increase in overdose deaths from 2020 to 2021, from 7,231 to 7,827. The majority of states also saw increases.

Data the state publicized in August said Florida had a 4% year-over-year decrease in drug-related deaths. But a state health department official told PolitiFact that figure was based on provisional data that changes as it’s finalized.

Now, preliminary 2022 CDC data shows a 2.8% decrease in Florida overdose deaths from 2021 to 2022. The CDC told PolitiFact that Florida had 7,827 overdose deaths in 2021 compared with 7,611 in 2022. The final 2022 mortality data won’t be available until early next year.

Nationwide, provisional data shows that drug overdose deaths decreased by 2% year-over-year from December 2021 to December 2022, to slightly more than 100,000.

For Florida, the 2022 decline in drug overdose deaths is the first since a decline from 2017 to 2018.

Nevertheless, "the crisis remains acute," Project Opioid, a nonprofit based in Orlando, wrote in September.

Within Florida, drug overdose deaths decreased in some counties and increased in others.

Brevard County cut overdoses by 49%, Project Opioid found. The nonprofit said the decrease seems to be attributable to a combination of widespread naloxone distribution, increased availability of medication-assisted treatment, coordination between health care providers and authorities to get people treatment and community education.

The Tampa Bay Times found that drug overdose death tolls were still climbing in Tampa Bay counties, including Pasco, which had a 13% increase in overdose deaths from 2021 to 2022.

The Florida reduction is "small but promising and certainly in the right direction," said Brandon Marshall, a Brown University School of Public Health epidemiology professor. "At a population level, this reduction is consistent with experiences in other states."

Brian Tsai, a CDC National Center for Health Statistics spokesperson, said that the decline "is not trivial," but it remains to be seen whether it’s statistically significant, and that can’t be determined until final 2022 data is available.

Florida expanded opioid recovery program in 2022

DeSantis credited Florida’s opioid recovery network, called Coordinated Opioid Recovery, or CORE, for helping reduce overdose deaths. In August 2022, Florida expanded the program to 12 counties after it was piloted in only Palm Beach.

The program takes a comprehensive approach that includes immediate lifesaving care, access to stabilizing care and other medical and social support services for career training, housing and food insecurity.

Stephen J. Wilson, Project Opioid data analyst, said drug overdose deaths decreased in some counties after CORE expanded to serve them. However, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune found that in 2022, five of the counties in the CORE program had increases in overdose deaths.

Our ruling

DeSantis said Florida "had a year-over-year reduction" in drug overdose deaths.

DeSantis was imprecise when talking with Tapper; he didn’t cite a timeframe. His spokespeople later said he was referring to a decline in overdose deaths from 2021 to 2022.

CDC data shows that change was 2.8% based on final 2021 data and available 2022 data. But that 2022 data was provisional, which means that the final number still could change.

The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.

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