Tampa Bay’s opioid crisis grows during the pandemicRegional effort launches to stem addictions, deaths

Every day three people in the Tampa Bay Area die from opioid overdose in what is being described as “the epidemic within the pandemic” -- the spike in opioid use associated with COVID-19.
To address the problem, the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of regional business leaders, recently launched a project to build support among business, non-profit, and faith-based groups to find solutions. Funded by the Florida Blue Foundation, Project Opioid Tampa Bay was announced by Partnership CEO Rick Homans on May 21 at a virtual kick-off event featuring community and statewide leaders, including representatives from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.

“Opioid abuse threatens the health and economic fabric of our community,” Homans noted in introducing a range of speakers that included Scott Rivkees, Florida Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health, Project Director Jennifer Webb and Florida Senator Daryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, and Florida Blue CEO Pat Geraghty of Jacksonville.

Project Opioid

Founded in 2018, Project OPIOID was established in response to the  raging opioid epidemic that claimed the lives of nearly 450,000 people across America in one decade. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven the opioid crisis to new heights, creating the greatest mental health and substance abuse crisis in U.S. history. In partnership with and support from Florida Blue and the Florida Blue Foundation, Project Opioid Tampa Bay will become one of six regional chapters in Florida. 

The opioid crisis in Florida

Florida has long been at the forefront of the opioid crisis. It has been described as an epidemic in three waves going back to the rise of opioid pill mills of the 1990s during which the Tampa Bay Area was ground zero. In 2009, Florida was one of a very few states not to have a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program and received national attention in 2010 when over 2,000 opioid deaths were reported, a 6-fold jump from the previous decade.

Following years of legislative changes and better regulatory enforcement including establishing a Monitoring Program, the opiate problem at first improved, then “returned to the streets” with rising heroin deaths, marking the second wave of the epidemic. In recent years, the addition of a new, more deadly ingredient -- fentanyl -- entered the market. This cheaper black-market drug, along with its synthetic equivalents, marked the third wave of the crisis.
While legislation has attempted to address the problem by strengthening penalties and allowing the use of drugs like naloxone by first responders, Homans said “the current epidemic continues to evolve rapidly” and “hasn’t spared any aspect of our society regardless of income level or ethnic group.” He further explained “that while thousands of people continue to work on the front lines of the crisis, there has never been a coalition to educate the public and advocate for the solutions that could save many, many lives. This why we launched Project Opioid Tampa Bay.”

The opioid crisis in Tampa Bay

Florida Blue’s Geraghty noted that “the COVID-19 epidemic has been associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety, particularly among those who struggle with addiction. As a result, we are seeing a heartbreaking increase in overdoses and deaths related to opioids.”

In the Tampa Bay Area alone, more than 1,200 residents died from opioid use in 2020. “Tampa Bay’s opioid rate is 51% higher than the national average,” Geraghty said, and has cost the region approximately $25 billion in economic output.

Florida Surgeon General Rivkees, a practicing pediatric endocrinologist and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine and physician-in-chief of UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, described the state’s opioid overdose problem as “an uphill battle,” an issue, at present “even more dire than COVID-19 in our state.” 

He pointed out that in 2020, drug overdoses in Florida’s emergency rooms exceeded those in 2019 in every month. Some of the top 10 counties for these overdose visits were in the Tampa Bay Area, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties with Pinellas County having the highest number in the region. Currently the state is spending $58 million on drug overdose prevention through a statewide initiative that will focus on 14 counties including Pinellas.

Project Opioid Tampa Bay

Project Director Webb, who works for Omni Public and is a former state representative from Pinellas County, reported national statistics now indicate that annual opioid-related deaths exceed those from HIV-AIDS and represent the 9th leading cause of death in the United States.
In Florida, she noted, opiate-related deaths disproportionately afflict Black and Latinx communities. And millennials, while representing only 25% of the population, account for 75% of opiate deaths. She emphasized that the Project “must address strategies employing equity for these populations” and cautioned that “the opioid epidemic of 2021 is more virulent than the opioid epidemic of 2019.”
Project Opioid plans in the coming months to assemble an array of regional stakeholders, establish a data dashboard, and develop a regional strategy for dealing with the opioid crisis. Solutions to be addressed include medication-assisted treatment and use of opiate overdose therapies such as Narcan (naloxone), counseling, and public education.
Senator Rouson emphasized the importance of addressing the issue of the stigma that is often associated with opioid addiction. “This stigma will cause a person to not seek treatment,” he said, adding that “what we need to do is reduce the stigma by doing things like this, talking about it, creating more awareness.”

The goal of Project Opioid Tampa Bay, according to Webb, is to “substantially reduce the rate of opioid addiction by 2025,” adding with some urgency, “opioid-related deaths are almost entirely preventable.”

For more information, visit Project Opioid and the Tampa Bay Partnership websites.

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Read more articles by Dr. Bruce Shephard.

Dr. Bruce D. Shephard, a retired Obstetrician-Gynecologist and Affiliate Associate Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, USF Morsani College of Medicine, is best known locally for delivering more than 7,350 babies. He now occasionally teaches and always practices good health, dabbles in writing, and raises monarch butterflies. He and his wife, Coleen, live in Tampa.