MANATEE -- A sense of frustration at slow progress set in during the Opioid Task Force meeting Tuesday, as various officials worked to discuss how different agencies could solve the heroin epidemic in Manatee and Sarasota.
Officials with Centerstone Florida, the addiction treatment center formerly known as Manatee Glens, talked about training volunteers who could sit with addicts in hospitals after an overdose to go through their treatment options.
"We already have that," responded Marilou Marshall, a psych resource nurse at Manatee Memorial Hospital. "We have a list of treatment options that we give them, and we'll see it laying on the bed after they leave."
Others suggested that law enforcement try to do more. Manatee Sheriff's Maj. Connie Shingledecker quickly said that while she can't comment on ongoing investigations, they are certainly pursuing heroin dealers.
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"If I was sitting here telling you, 'It's coming from Mexico,' how do you stop that?" Shingledecker asked. "This isn't just a problem here. It's a national problem."
Gino Scano, a recovery coach at Centerstone Florida and a recovering heroin addict who has been clean since 1990, said addicts typically won't get help until they're ready.
"You couldn't say anything right (about getting clean) when I was an addict. I would ignore you," Scano said. "Then once I decided to stop, you couldn't say anything wrong."
Regardless, the Opioid Task Force is taking gradual but needed steps. Its second meeting Tuesday brought together law enforcement, the Manatee County Substance Abuse Coalition, local treatment centers, Manatee County Emergency Medical Services, hospitals, family members of addicts and state agencies at the Centerstone Florida campus to organize a coordinated effort to solve Manatee County's heroin epidemic.
It's the first group of its kind that has brought in representatives from agencies throughout the county to try to solve the crisis, which already has claimed 86 lives ust through mid-June, up from 63 in 2014 and 19 in 2013 in Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto Counties.
Now, those representatives are trying to consistently coordinate and deal with addicts. Addicts tend to enter the system either through overdosing, bring transported to the hospital by EMS, processed by the hospitals and then in best cases transferred to a treatment center, or they enter the system through encounters with law enforcement.
The task force wants to understand what addicts experience at every step of that process.
Wendy Nebrija, chairwoman of the task force and a retired member of the Substance Abuse Coalition, said they're hoping that effort will result in increased access to treatment, which is one of three steps they're trying to emphasize to cut down on the epidemic. The other two steps are preventing new cases of opioid addiction through the informed prescription of painkillers, and expanding the distribution of naloxone, a drug that counteracts overdoses and is now available to at-risk populations through prescriptions.
People who are addicted to opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
"We're going to focus on increased access to treatment in our meetings, because that's where we feel we can do the most," Nebrija said.
The task force meets every third Tuesday of the month at the Centerstone Florida campus and is developing a comprehensive list of available services for addicts.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby