Opioid Epidemic Continues to Ravage Fla. Towns
June 13—PANAMA CITY—Five years ago, opioid overdoses were so infrequent in the area, first responders almost stopped testing for them.
Last year, 49 people died.
That's 49 families—one for almost every week of the year, who lost a loved one and, according to Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford, a 113 percent increase over 2015, when 23 people died.
Based on the numbers, 2017 isn't looking any better. Corky Young, the Division Chief for Emergency Medical Services, projected Bay County will have more than 800 dispatches for overdoses this year, not including calls for unresponsive patients.
"The gravity of this is incredible," Young said during a meeting Monday at the Department of Health. "We are doing anywhere from 10 to 20 a day. I have found professional heroin users dead with needles in their arm. The strength of the stuff out there is incredible. It's all ugly."
The question posed at the Recovery Oriented Systems of Care (ROSC) meeting—which was attended by local politicians, mental health professionals, law enforcement, the Health Department and other stakeholders—was what is the community going to do about it.
"We have to figure out how to fix it and turn it around," Young said.
The thing that changed, according to Ford, is the pill mills closed. About 80 percent of opioid addicts started with a prescription painkiller before it spiraled out of control, and they used to be able to get their fix with a prescription at the pill mills. When legislators and law enforcement cracked down, people were forced to find other methods to get high, leading to the current epidemic.
It's not just Bay County. Florida has declared a state of emergency and appropriated millions to try to find solutions. Nationwide, drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death for people under 50.
To get a handle on the problem, members of the ROSC task force are hoping to change the way the community sees and interacts with addicts, transitioning from a punitive model to one that pushes rehabilitation.
"We need to think of it as long-term as a chronic disease," said Dr. Mark Stavros of Gulf Coast Addiction Medicine. "There is a recircuitry of the brain."
Among the long-term goals discussed at the meeting were using state and federal funding to help bring more treatment options to the area, including medical treatments buprenorphine (also known as suboxone) and Vivitrol, as well as equipping law enforcement agencies, who are often first on the scene, with Narcan.
They also are hoping to learn what is and is not available locally through a process called sequential intercept mapping over the next year.
Some changes already are being made—Bay County Jail now offers Vivitrol to departing inmates and sheriff's deputies now carry Narcan—but mostly people are bracing themselves for the impact.
"The trauma is real," said Mike Watkins, the chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care. "The trauma in their wake is real. There is the immediate—their condition, the criminality and the medical—but there is also the reverberation."
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