It was less than five years ago when the morgue in Manatee County could house all the bodies of drug overdose victims. The grim headlines from 2016 shook a community that still suffers a higher rate of overdoses than the country at large.
On Monday, Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton will host the Florida Statewide Task Force on Opioid Abuse.
Officials will discuss the ways in which deaths have been dramatically reduced and how physicians have sought of alternatives to painkillers for many emergency conditions.
But Jim Boyd, a member of the task force, knows more must be done. His eight-year tenure in the Florida House of Representatives would largely be defined by policy responses to the opioid crisis. But he feels Florida still needs to do more to prevent addiction and educate the public about the threat of prescription and synthetic drugs.
“The next steps we develop are important to continue the fight,” he said, “and the fight does need to continue.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody, who chairs the task force, will host a press conference on Monday alongside U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican who has also been focused on the issue for years. The National Defense Authorization bill signed by President Donald Trump in December included several of those provisions.
Buchanan for his part pressed in 2019 for sanctions on Chinese manufacturers who knowingly ship synthetic opioids like fentanyl into the United States.
“For too long, fentanyl and other opioids have wreaked havoc on communities in Florida and across the country,” he told Florida Poliics ahead of the Tuesday presser.
“We need to continue our efforts to fight opioids. I thank the Attorney General for leading the state’s efforts on this issue and I look forward to learning more about what we can do together at the state and federal level to address this issue.”
And opioid deaths continue be stress the region, which has recently reported an uptick in fatal overdoses. The District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office, which serves Manatee and Sarasota counties, had at least 110 overdose deaths from January through July in 2019, according to the Bradenton Herald. That’s compared 151 deaths in all of 2018 and 260 deaths in 2017.
A single synthetic drug, fentanyl, was responsible for 65 of those deaths in early 2019.
That’s a drug many can turn to on the street after developing addictions under the watch of medical professionals.
That’s part of why foundations like the Sarasota-based Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation devoted resources in the region to reducing exposure to opioids for expectant mothers.
The program was one of many showcased at the Summit on Substance Use Disorder in the Pregnancy Patient and Substance Exposed Newborns., held in Sarasota last fall.
Boyd said local hospitals and law enforcement officials have found success in treating overdose victims and developed emergency treatments that save lives.
Narcan, a nasal spray that can immediately be used to treat individuals while overdosing, has become a standard issue product for Manatee County sheriff’s deputies, and law enforcement has also provided training for the public.
But Boyd said while it’s important to curb deaths, it doesn’t treat the root problem.
“That can’t be the solution; that’s to save a life when you are in a crisis,” he said.
Boyd remains proud of legislation passed during his time in the House that gave law enforcement may options to limit dosages available in prescriptions and to increase minimum mandatory sentencing for drug traffickers for opiods.
Boyd’s focus right now remains on education cutting down substance abuse from the start. A candidate for Florida Senate, he expects to push for outreach in schools.
“Kids in elementary school need to be learning about the dangers of these drugs and what the outcomes can be if they don’t take it seriously,” he said.
The task force meeting will be the fifth, with members gathering at different locations around the state of Florida since last October. The next and final scheduled meeting will take place in the Florida Capital, when members expect to produce policy recommendations.