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Devastated by drug overdoses, Tampa advocate prays deadly spike will end in 2022

Ellen Snelling, with the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance, has lived the record-breaking spike of overdose deaths
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Posted at 6:48 AM, Dec 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 08:07:48-05

TAMPA, Fla. — For Ellen Snelling, it’s still so surreal. In 2016, she got the unexpected phone call no one ever wants. Her brother died of a drug overdose in Miami.

“I was actually at Universal Studios. It was right before Christmas,” she remembered. “And got a phone call that he had overdosed and died — I just — I can’t describe how — it was just horrible.”

And then, in the summer of 2021, history nearly repeated itself when someone in her immediate family had a similar scare, and according to Snelling, “came very close to death” but miraculously survived.

“It’s almost like you can’t comprehend it,” said Snelling.

Snelling said fentanyl, a powerful opioid that often contaminates other drugs, was to blame in both cases. In the more recent case, the family member impacted had no idea they had ingested fentanyl.

“To think of losing anyone in your family over a drug is, you know, it’s just awful, and it can cause nightmares, and it makes you worry constantly,” said Snelling. “You know, I know the devastation it causes to a family.”

Right now, so many families are being devastated nationwide.

Back in November, the CDC announced that drug overdose deaths across the nation topped 100,000 from April 2020 to April 2021, which is a record-breaking amount.

That statistic not only alarms Snelling as someone who’s lived through the crisis but also as someone who battles it daily as the board chair of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance.

“It really is almost incomprehensible — how extensive the epidemic is, and it’s hitting us right here in the Tampa Bay area,” she said. “The one that is causing the most destruction and death is definitely fentanyl, and people are getting that in their drugs, and they’re not even aware of it.”

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“The way the world is right now — that one pill — if it is not from your doctor prescription from your pharmacy — you’re taking a huge chance with your life," she added.

Snelling shared data with ABC Action News that shows, in the past few years, the spike in overdose deaths in Hillsborough County now exceeds the annual count of traffic fatalities, homicides, and suicides.

According to the data, fentanyl analogs are now the most common drugs found in overdose victims. The data also shows that in the first six months of 2020, in Hillsborough County, 1,338 calls “across all EMS/Fire Rescue” were opioid overdose calls treated with Narcan — a medicine that rapidly reverses the effects of an overdose — compared to 732 in the same six month period in 2019.

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Snelling said the Tampa Bay area is generally well-suited with a myriad of drug treatment programs, but she believes more can be done regionally and nationally, including better education starting at an earlier age, more funding for treatment and prevention, better access to quick treatment, and stronger border security to better prevent the flow of fentanyl from Mexico.

“All of those things have to be addressed,” Snelling concluded.

Her hope is that things do get better next year to prevent more families from experiencing what she did twice: a brother she’ll never get back and another family member who almost became one of more than 100,000.

“2022 is going to be my prediction, and I mean I’m just praying and hoping that that’s the year we’re going to start turning this around," she said.

Snelling’s biggest plea is for those who need help to seek it out quickly.

The Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance website includes a list of programs available in our area.

Additionally, the SAMHSA National Helpline for those seeking help is 1-800-662-4357.