Manatee County is the epicenter of the opioid epidemic in Florida -- an unpleasant fact highlighted Tuesday in the second of four meetings around the state to discuss the effects of the opioid crisis on local communities.
Manatee County has the second most removals of children, in part because of the opioid crisis. Stocks of naloxone, life-saving opioid overdose antidote, are being depleted as first responders often save the same patient multiple times. One 30-year-old man was visited by EMS 27 times, said Chief Paul DiCicco.
“Even though we may be the epicenter, we know we’re not unique,” said Commissioner Betsy Benac. “This is a problem that is being dealt with in communities throughout this country.”
On April 11, Gov. Rick Scott called on state health and law enforcement agencies to travel to Manatee, Palm Beach, Orange and Duval counties for workshops to address needs to combat the opioid crisis. According to the 2015 Medical Examiners Commission Drug Report, Manatee County had more deaths per capita from fentanyl, cocaine and morphine than any other county in Florida; heroin deaths per capita were tied with Palm Beach County.
The Longboat Key Room in the Bradenton Area Convention Center was standing room only as commissioners, law enforcement, first responders, as well as representatives from the Florida Department of Families and Children, Department of Health, Office of the Attorney General and health care officials gathered to talk about what they were dealing with and what they needed.
Best practice ideas discussed in the roundtable included a new needle exchange program at the University of Miami that has just started to give out doses of Narcan, a brand name of naloxone. Also, Palm Beach County law enforcement, EMS and social workers started to participate in a program to identify interested overdose patients for an eight-day suboxone treatment plan that would also link the patients to long-term treatment options.
The main takeaway: funding is needed.
The county is waiting to hear on a $500,000 funding request to the Florida Legislature for a pilot program to treatment called the Manatee County Opioid Addiction Recovery Peer Pilot Program, which would be a community-based approach rather than facility-based. Recently, $27 million was allocated to Florida to use in response to the opioid crisis. But a lack of beds for longer-term residential treatment is taking a toll. Gerrie Stanhope, a leader of the heroin awareness group called No Longer Silent, said her son died while he was waiting for a bed at Centerstone.
During the hour-long comment period, concerned citizens from Manatee County and even across the state gave thoughtful insight on how opioid abuse was affecting them. Phil O’Day, recovering from heroin addiction, drove from Ocala to share a message of hope.
“I didn’t stop. I got stopped,” he said.
It took a prison diversion program to get him on the path to sobriety. He said he is now one year clean after getting high for 45 years, though it was the most difficult thing he’s done.
Jomeca Marshall was an addict, too; she had the scars on her arms to show for it and had sought help through a faith-based program. Her son died Aug. 26 after he overdosed on what he thought was cocaine. It was carfentanil.
She and others were concerned that the roundtable consisted of only leaders and officials. As far as they could tell, judging by the name tags and associations, not one person was a part of the roundtable as an addict or person in recovery.
“I’m not sitting up there, and I’m the one that can make change,” Marshall said.
Mike Carroll, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, defended that claim.
“I really think that this issue is sometimes it feels like that game whack-a-mole,” Carroll said. “You think you have it and then something else comes up.”
He added that to solve a multifaceted issue, everyone needs to be on board.
“To me, if any community’s going to tackle this issue, you need the right people at the table that encompass that whole system, because if you don’t have it, then I say what you do is tilt the water in the tank. You may solve part of the problem but problem itself never goes away,” Carroll said.