Every day, three people in the Tampa Bay area die of an opioid overdose in what is described as “the epidemic within the pandemic” – the peak in opioid use associated with COVID-19.
To solve the problem, the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of regional business leaders, recently launched a project to build support for businesses, nonprofits and faith groups to find solutions. Funded by the Florida Blue Foundation, the Opioid Tampa Bay Project was announced by Partnership CEO Rick Homans on May 21 at a virtual launch event featuring community and state leaders, including representatives from the office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“Opioid abuse threatens the health and economic fabric of our community,” Homans noted presenting a range of speakers that included Scott Rivkees, Florida Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health, Director Project Manager Jennifer Webb and Florida Senator Daryl Rouson of St Petersburg, and Pat Geraghty, CEO of Florida Blue, of Jacksonville.
Founded in 2018, Project OPIOID was created in response to the raging opioid epidemic that claimed the lives of nearly 450,000 people across America in a decade. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the opioid crisis to new heights, creating the largest mental health and substance abuse crisis in U.S. history. In partnership with and with the support of Florida Blue and the Florida Blue Foundation, Project Opioid Tampa Bay will become one of six regional chapters in Florida.
Florida’s Opioid Crisis
Florida has long been at the forefront of the opioid crisis. It has been described as a three-wave epidemic dating back to the rise of opioid pill factories in the 1990s when the Tampa Bay area was at zero. In 2009, Florida was one of the very few states that did not have a prescription drug monitoring program and received national attention in 2010 when more than 2,000 opioid-related deaths were reported – 6 times more than the previous decade.
After years of legislative change and better enforcement, including the establishment of a monitoring program, the opioid problem first improved and then ‘returned to the streets’ with it. an increase in heroin deaths, marking the second wave of the epidemic. In recent years, the addition of a new more deadly ingredient – fentanyl – has entered the market. This cheaper black market drug, along with its synthetic equivalents, marked the third wave of the crisis.
While legislation has attempted to address the problem by strengthening penalties and allowing the use of drugs like naloxone by first responders, Homans said that “the current epidemic continues to evolve rapidly” and “has spared no aspect of our society, regardless of income level or ethnic group. ”He further explained“ that while thousands of people continue to work on the frontlines of the crisis, there has never been a coalition to educate the public and advocate for solutions that could save countless lives. That’s why we launched the Opioid Tampa Bay Project. “
The opioid crisis in Tampa Bay
Geraghty of Florida Blue noted that “the COVID-19 epidemic has been associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety, particularly among those struggling with addiction. As a result, we are seeing a heartbreaking increase in opioid-related overdoses and deaths. “
In the Tampa Bay area alone, more than 1,200 residents have died from opioid use in 2020. “Tampa Bay’s opioid rate is 51% higher than the national average,” said Geraghty, and cost the region around $ 25 billion in economic output.
Florida Surgeon General Rivkees, a practicing pediatric endocrinologist and chair of the pediatrics department at the University of Florida College of Medicine and chief medical officer at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, described the opioid overdose problem in the state as “an uphill battle”. a problem currently “even more serious than COVID-19 in our state”.
He pointed out that in 2020, drug overdoses in Florida emergency rooms exceeded those of 2019 each month. Some of the top 10 counties for these overdose visits were in the Tampa Bay area, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties, with Pinellas County having the highest number in the region. Currently, the state is spending $ 58 million on drug overdose prevention as part of a statewide initiative that will focus on 14 counties, including Pinellas.
Opioid Tampa Bay Project
Project Director Webb, who works for Omni Public and is a former Pinellas County State Representative, reported that national statistics now indicate that annual opioid-related deaths exceed those from HIV-AIDS and represent the 9th cause of death in the United States.
In Florida, she noted, opioid-related deaths disproportionately afflict black and Latin communities. And millennials, while making up only 25% of the population, account for 75% of opioid-related deaths. She stressed that the project “must address strategies that employ equity for these populations” and warned that “the opioid epidemic of 2021 is more virulent than the opioid epidemic of 2019.”
The Opioid project plans in the coming months to bring together a range of regional stakeholders, establish a data dashboard and develop a regional strategy to address the opioid crisis. Solutions to be addressed include medical treatment and the use of opioid overdose treatments such as Narcan (naloxone), counseling and public education.
Senator Rouson emphasized the importance of addressing the issue of the stigma often associated with opioid addiction. “This stigma will cause a person not to seek treatment,” he said, adding that “what we need to do is reduce the stigma by doing things like this, talking about it, creating more. awareness. ”
According to Webb, the goal of the Opioid Tampa Bay Project is to “dramatically reduce the rate of opioid dependence by 2025,” adding with some urgency, “Opioid-related deaths are almost entirely preventable.”