Action News Jax Investigates: Minneapolis lab uncovers deadly opioid mixes in Jacksonville patients

It's an epidemic tearing apart local families -- powerful new drug combinations hiding a deadly secret.
Jacksonville's battle against opioid addiction is being waged on a new front.

Action News Jax’s Lorena Inclan traveled 1,400 miles and got exclusive access to the cutting-edge technology helping local doctors save lives.

"I could just look at her. Her eyes were rolled back, her fingers were already purple and I was trying to perform CPR," said Lora Strickland, whose daughter overdosed on opioids.

Strickland's daughter is one of the 115 Americans who die every day from an opioid overdose.

A heat map shows the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department responded to overdoses in 2017 all over the city.

“It's affecting so many people in this country and it's coming from China. I've been calling it chemical warfare. It really is. They're wiping out large numbers of our population,” said Dr. Raymond Pomm, of Gateway Community Services.

But Jacksonville is punching back, thanks to an idea by Pomm. It's called Project Save Lives.

“We have a team in the emergency department that's embedded there; a recovery peer specialist, a mental health worker and an ED coordinator that helps direct the flow,” Pomm said.

In any war, you need weapons to fight back. To save lives in Jacksonville, doctors needed to know exactly what was in their patients' systems. We traveled to Minneapolis to meet the scientists behind the research that’s saving lives back home.

“There's approximately 10,000 samples in here right now and these are all the positive samples we have coming from Minnesota, Florida,” said Steve Ekbom, lab operations manager for Premier Biotech.

All the urine samples from Project Save Lives participants are analyzed by Minneapolis-based Premier Biotech.

Ekbom said they've noticed a common thread among the Jacksonville samples.

Inclan: “So first the cocaine peek, then fentanyl, usually they're both, they're together?"

Ekbom: "Yes, for a lot of the Project Save Lives we're seeing them both in the same sample."

Inclan: "Is that surprising?"

Ekbom: "Absolutely."

That deadly cocktail is something scientists at Premier Biotech weren't seeing before. It also does not respond to traditional treatment.

Casey Michalik, vice president of sales and marketing for Premier Biotech, said the new battle has shifted to designer fentanyl.

“They are diluting the fentanyl with acetyl fentanyl to essentially get customers or drug users addicted to fentanyl without killing them,” Michalik said.

She called it Russian roulette.

Michalik showed us the results of one urine sample from Project Save Lives. This person had cocaine, heroin, opiates and at least three designer opioids in their system.

It's possible the patient did not know the drugs contained fentanyl.

Because of this discovery, Premier Biotech developed a new designer opioid test that can detect 12 different compounds of fentanyl.

“We need to be identifying those because those don't always show up positive if you're just testing for fentanyl,” Michalik said.

That is critical information in order to know how to treat the patients.

The lab has also provided local doctors with a "fentanyl dip" for overdose patients' urine. About 90 percent come back positive.

“Jacksonville is doing something that nobody else is really doing right now,” Michalik said.

Project Save Lives has been so successful that every patient who has accepted the help is still alive.

The Project Save Lives teams are expanding from two local emergency rooms to four, the goal is to implement the program in every Florida county.