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Regional leadership group tackles resurgent opioid crisis

Brian Hartz

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Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt life as we know it, another public health crisis has quietly reared its head — and Tampa Bay is its epicenter.

According to research commissioned by the Tampa Bay Partnership — a coalition of CEOs and other business leaders focused on regional research, public policy and advocacy — the opioid crisis has undergone a resurgence, with 1,200 Tampa Bay residents dying from opioid abuse in 2020, up from 1,024 in 2019.

Those numbers might not seem big compared to Covid-19 death toll, but according to the partnership, they represent the continuation of a disturbing trend that has seen Tampa Bay’s fatal opioid overdose rate creep up in comparison to the rest of Florida and the United States.

“The epidemic within the pandemic” is how the partnership and its funding partner, the Florida Blue Foundation, refer to the crisis. In response, they have formed an initiative called Project Opioid Tampa Bay that’s set to formally launch on May 21. According to a news release, it “will build a coalition of business, nonprofit and faith-based leaders to research the regional impact of opioid abuse, identify the types of treatment and resources available within the community and develop an actionable strategy to reduce opioid deaths in Tampa Bay.”

The project has its work cut out for it, according to the partnership’s research, which found that the region’s fatal opioid overdose rate of 24.5 per 100,000 residents is nearly 15 percent higher than the state of Florida and 58 percent higher than the nation as a whole. The situation is worst in Pinellas County, which leads the region with 36.8 opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.

Unlike Covid-19, opioid addiction can’t be treated instantly with a vaccine. The crisis is a much “stickier” and more complex issue, said former State Rep. Jennifer Webb, who’s serving as executive director of Project Opioid Tampa Bay.

“We can’t wait [to address opioid addiction] until the Covid pandemic is over,” Webb, who’s now the founder and managing partner of Omni Public, told the Catalyst. “It’s going to be too late, because we’re going to have to redouble our efforts, starting now, to be able to save people’s lives and reduce addiction in general.”

Jennifer_Webb_Project_Opioid

Former State Rep. Jennifer Webb, who represented Pinellas County, is spearheading Project Opioid Tampa Bay. Courtesy photo.

The partnership, in the release, said Covid-19 has only served to exacerbate the opioid epidemic. It cited “stress of job loss, threat of evictions and the consequences of stay-at-home polices” as factors that drove people to abuse opioids, a class of drugs that include illegal substances such as heroin as well as legal, prescription medications such as OxyContin, Vicodin, morphine and methadone. Opioids also include fentanyl, a powerful synthetic painkiller that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is increasingly made and distributed illegally in many states, including Florida.

“The spread of fentanyl eroded in one year the gains that had been made over the previous three,” the partnership stated in a section of its report referring to an upswing in opioid-related deaths in 2019. “This increase in opioid deaths after such a hard-fought battle to finally see a reduction in opioid deaths was crushing to those who work in public health, law enforcement, and addiction treatment.”

Webb, who represented Pinellas County in the Florida House, said it’s still early days for her research into the reasons why Tampa Bay has become an opioid hotspot, but she believes that the region’s many busy ports contribute mightily to the problem. Also, she said, the Covid-19 crisis disrupted the flow of recreational drugs into many ports, which could be why the use of fentanyl has increased so much. Because supplies of “pure” drugs are down, people are cutting drugs with fentanyl, which produces more fatal overdoses.

“Methamphetamines are being cut with synthetic opioids,” she said. “Talk about a mess — a dirty drug mixed with an even dirtier drug. It’s very problematic. In Pasco County late last month, a few weeks ago, they had seven [overdose] deaths within 24 hours. And these seven deaths all occurred within a two-mile radius.”

The impact of the opioid crisis, however, is felt not only in terms of lives lost, but economic productivity. Nearly 75 percent of fatal overdoses in Florida occur in people between the ages of 25 and 54, and overdose victims who don’t die are often unable to work. In 2015, the partnership reported, “as many as 35,000 workers were sidelined from the regional labor force due to opioid use, and between 1999 and 2015 … the region lost as much as $26.5 billion in gross regional product (GRP).”

Webb, who was personally devastated by the opioid crisis when her drug-addicted sister committed suicide, said she sees the economic aspects of the crisis as a potentially key driver of change.

“I believe with my whole heart that the ability for us to have an impact is contingent upon our leaders and business stakeholders engaging and owning the issue,” she said. “And I see myself as just a resource. We’ve seen it time and time again: When business leaders, community leaders weigh in on something and are united on something and demand that something be done, they can move mountains. I mean, they can really unstick situations that have been stuck for a while.”

Project Opioid Tampa Bay will officially kick off on May 21 with a virtual launch event scheduled for 8:30 to 10 a.m. It will feature Gov. Ron DeSantis and GuideWell President and CEO Pat Geraghty, as well as a panel of experts who will discuss the impact of the opioid crisis in Florida and across the country, and how overdose deaths can be reduced in the Tampa Bay region.

Click here to register.

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