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Pinellas participates in new opioid recovery network

Mark Parker



Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health - Pinellas, speaks at a December 2022 Opioid Recovery Network press conference. He is joined by several local and state health officials, many of whom will help disburse millions in settlement money. Photo by Mark Parker.

Local and state health officials are now implementing a “first-of-its-kind” coordinated care model to reduce an opioid epidemic showing no signs of abatement.

Leadership from Florida Departments of Health (FDOH) and Children and Families held a press conference alongside their Pinellas County counterparts in St. Petersburg Tuesday. Together, they announced the formation of the Coordinated Opioid Recovery (CORE) Network.

Pinellas is one of 12 Florida counties participating in the innovative program that expands every aspect of overdose response and treats all primary and secondary impacts of substance abuse disorder. Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of DOH-Pinellas, said preventing opioid overdoses is a top health priority in the county.

The problem resonates locally and beyond because it is so pervasive, explained Choe. He said statistics tell a sobering tale.

“Last year, here in Pinellas County, there were 618 drug-related deaths and 484 opioid-related deaths,” said Choe. “Another way to put that is that one person died every 14 hours from an accidental drug overdose.”

The situation is worsening, he added, as deaths increased by 46% in the last three years. His department recorded its highest total ever in 2021.

However, Choe said there is hope. He relayed that county officials are working closely with several local healthcare providers and investing in addiction treatments and medications.

In addition, he said the Pinellas County Opioid Task Force continuously convenes passionate stakeholders and experts to develop strategies and objectives to address the problem. Choe, also the statewide county health systems director for the DOH, said he is hopeful that the comprehensive CORE Network will mitigate the effects of “this terrible disease.”

Dr. Kenneth Scheppke, deputy secretary of health for the state, called the program long overdue and much needed – in Florida and throughout the country. He relayed how officials created the emergency medical service (EMS) trauma systems we see today due to an epidemic of car accident deaths in the late 1960s.

“We, as a nation, got together and said, ‘enough is enough,’” said Scheppke. “And now we’re going to do it for substance abuse disorder and opioid use.”

According to information provided at the meeting, medical examiners reported over 8,000 overdose deaths in Florida last year. Since 2015, fentanyl-related fatalities have soared by 790%.

Substance abuse disorder is a lifelong disease, Scheppke said, and overdoses now claim more victims than car crashes. It is the leading cause of death for Americans between 18 and 45 years old, which he said should serve as a wake-up call.

He and other state health officials believe the current national treatment model is “unsustainable, unreliable and has deadly consequences.” The CORE initiative goes beyond emergency responses and ensures patients receive treatment for coexisting medical and mental health conditions.

The program also provides dental and primary care, psychiatric evaluations, maternal support and social services. In addition, Scheppke said substance abuse patients could access the network without experiencing an overdose.

Another unique aspect, Scheppke relayed, is that EMS will bypass the closest emergency rooms and transport patients to specialized facilities, similar to how they treat trauma victims.

He noted that 80% of overdose patients have untreated mental health issues, and 66% of injectable drug users test positive for hepatitis C. Many have HIV or other transmissible diseases, Scheppke added, and housing and food insecurity is often associated with substance abuse disorder.

“And rather than asking a patient to navigate themselves through this complex medical system, we’ll navigate the patient through,” he said. “Assess them, find out what they need and hand them off from one step to the next. Whatever it takes. We’ve looked at this disease the wrong way in the past, and I think we’ve finally woken up.”

The CORE Network started as a pilot in West Palm Beach. Scheppke said state health officials are now implementing the program according to counties with the greatest need, highest overdose rates and infrastructure necessary “to pull this off.”

Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus, Marion, Manatee, Brevard, Clay, Escambia, Gulf, Volusia, Duval and Flagler Counties are the first to participate in the program. Dr. Courtney Phillips, director of behavioral health for Palm Beach County, will serve as the statewide director of opioid recovery.


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