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The Opioid Epidemic, Florida's Emergency

Dean Johnson  | Published on 10/11/2017

Chances are someone in your family or someone you know has been affected by the rampant opioid epidemic that has been plaguing the U.S.As we learned at Wednesday’s League of Women Voters “Hot Topics” event, the problem is going to get worse before it gets better.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, one of Wednesday’s panelists, shared that discouraging assessment with League members and guests – and the other two panelists, Orange County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joshua Stephany and Dr. Amy Sims, a medical director at Aspire Health Partners, agreed.

Panel moderator Beth Kassab, Orlando Sentinel Enterprise Editor, set the scene with a recap of the case of Heather and Daniel Kelsey, a young couple found dead near their vehicle on Interstate 4 last December – with three toddlers buckled up in the backseat. The autopsy showed the Kelseys died of overdoses of fentanyl, an opioid considered 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

According to the panel, opioid addiction often has begun with people using up pain prescriptions and then resorting to buying drugs on the street – first, heroin and then fentanyl and its analogs (so-called designer drugs). Frequently, the buyers don’t know what they’re putting into their systems. “It’s like playing Russian roulette,“ Demings said. A very small dose of fentanyl or an analog can be a killer.

Dr. Sims said her group has a three-pronged program to deal with addiction: prevention, treatment, training. She said the mission includes educating physicians about overprescribing and promoting the use (by police or first-responders) of Naxolone (brand name Narcan), a nasal spray effective in treating suspected opioid overdoses.

The statistics are shocking. Dr. Sims said there are 2 million people in the U.S. suffering from opioid issues. Sheriff Demings said that from January-September this year, there have been 800 department responses to overdoses in unincorporated Orange County. That is an 87% increase over the same period in 2016. Five of seven overdose deaths, he said, are due to heroin or fentanyl.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.
Stephany agreed with other panelists that there has been a stigma associated with opioid users. It sometimes keeps them from getting help. “There is a movement toward treating the epidemic as a medical, not a criminal, issue,” he said. Indeed, Sims said, the brain damage caused by drug use can be treated successfully.

It’s going to take money for treatment and prevention programs, and so far the Florida Legislature hasn’t been delivering. “We need a significant increase in funding by the Legislature,” said Sims.
Locally, Demings said, the Sheriff’s Department has programs targeting younger kids in schools and community centers.

The opioid plague has devastated families. The three toddlers whose parents were found dead of fentanyl overdoses last year along I-4 now live with their mother’s dad and his wife. Heather Kelsey’s father said in a Sentinel article, “In a perfect world, we’d love to just be grandparents. But we’re not the only ones here having to do this. This is an epidemic.”