PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Recently released numbers from the CDC showed a startling increase in the number of opioid overdoses across the country. More than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses over a one-year stretch between May 2020 and April 2021; a 30% increase from the year before.
In the Tampa Bay area, the overdose rate is 23 out of every 100,000 people. That rate is 9 percent higher than the rest of Florida and 50 percent higher than the national average. Florida ranks second only to California in the number of overdose deaths.
The pandemic, coupled with increased depression and more deadly synthetic drugs, contributes to the spike in deaths, according to experts.
“It’s more than car accidents, heart attacks, when I describe what fentanyl (synthetic opioids) is I don’t know how else to describe it but murder,” said John Templeton Jr.
Templeton Jr. is on the front lines of Florida’s opioid crisis. He heads up Footprints Beachside Recovery Center in Treasure Island.
“We don’t want anybody to ever give up hope and our desire is to change that number. There were 100,000 overdose deaths in the last 12 months. That’s 100,000 people who could still be here,” he elaborated.
The Pasco County Sheriff is the latest law enforcement agency seeking to raise awareness about a new, dangerous synthetic opioid called ISO. It’s 20 times stronger than fentanyl.
“In the Tampa Bay region alone, 30 people die each and every week, that’s 30 people in our community leaving loved ones weekly,” said Jennifer Webb of Live Tampa Bay, formerly known as Project Opioid Tampa Bay.
Local and state leaders are stepping up to help. This month, Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis announced a new school program called “The facts. Your future.” aimed at preventing teens from abusing drugs.
“I think that education is important because a kid in high school can be introduced to a Xanax and they’ve heard of that drug and their aunt takes it and someone offers it to them at a party and it’s pressed with Fentanyl and they don’t wake up the next day. It’s frightening and devastating and can impact a straight-A kid,” Templeton Jr. added.
Pinellas County is also investing $2 million into overdose reversal medications like Narcan and training for first responders.
Templeton hopes more people will reach out for help, a move that likely saved his own life two decades ago.
“I’m going on my 20th year of sobriety and what a wonderful life and a wonderful gift it is and we want other people to experience that and it’s devastating when you think about the amount of people dying every single day because of bad drugs,” Templeton Jr. elaborated.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is part of the US Department of Health and Services, will be distributing $4.3 million to Florida organizations to provide treatment and support for opioid abuse amidst the national opioid epidemic.
Webb hopes Florida will also invest more into tracking how well various opioid abuse treatments work.
“How can we get better data on not just who is dying and who is not dying, but what treatment is working for Floridians and how can we keep people on the path of recovery instead of relapsing and dying?” she said.
In Pinellas County alone, there were 546 overdose deaths reported by the Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s office in 2020. In the first six months of 2021, it reported 298 overdose deaths, on track to surpass last year’s record-breaking numbers, which represented a 35 percent increase in drug-related deaths.
“The trend in overdose deaths does not look to be ending anytime soon, but for those dealing with addiction, you’re not alone and it’s not too late,” said Templeton Jr.
If you'd like to learn more about Footprints Beachside Recovery, you can click here: https://www.footprintsbeachside.com
If you'd like to learn more about Live Tampa Bay (Project Opiod), you can click here: https://projectopioidtampabay.org