In Florida, an estimated 17 people die every day from opioid abuse. To combat the issue, Attorney General Ashely Moody and Governor Ron DeSantis have created a new statewide task force. The group is charged with developing best practices for opioid abuse prevention through education, treatment, and law enforcement. Two recently appointed board members spoke about how they hope to help.
Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford is joining the task force. Ford says he is honored to be chosen and believes his experience working with drug enforcement will be an asset.
"I’ve been involved in law enforcement for about 25 years. About 18 of that was with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and I’ve been with the Sheriff’s office close to 10 years now. At FDLE I was very involved in drug enforcement and that’s always been a passion," said Ford.
Ford says opioid abuse is nothing new. But the drugs people use are changing. Over the last two decades, he’s seen abusers go from OxyContin to fentanyl—which is often disguised as another drug.
"The issue is somebody’s buying something on the side of the street. They don’t really know what they’re getting. It could be heroin; it could be heroin laced with fentanyl or carfentanil." But that's not the only forms Ford sees it in, "we even have seen cases where fentanyl is being pressed into a pill form that appears to be Xanax."
The sheriff says he’s already implemented changes in Bay County he thinks have made a significant difference. One new practice in particular he believes is already saving lives.
"We’ve brought medicated treatment inside the jail," explains Ford.
Ford says before abusers would be directed by a court order to get medical treatment once they left jail. But he says in many cases they never made it to the appointment.
“They were getting out of jail. They were going back into that same environment that they came from. Same dealers that are available same friends, same stressors in life and many times didn’t make it to the appointment before they began using," explained Ford.
Ford says starting treatment behind bars ensures a person gets the help they need before moving back into the same environment.
"So we start that both the injection and the connection with the outside provider. So they know who they’re dealing with, who they’re can go to. And they can begin the treatment and the counseling and other outpatient measures to help them with their addiction," said Ford.
Opioid addicts receive an injection called Vivitrol. It’s a medicine that when used as part of a treatment plan can decrease opioid cravings, and reduce the risk of a relapse.
Heather Flynn is another new member of the Opioid Taskforce. Flynn is the vice-chair of the College of Medicine at FSU. She hopes to focus on helping pregnant women who are addicted to opioids--something she says can cause life-long complications for the child.
“There’s a lot of variability in how it affects the infant. The immediate effects are the health and thriving of the infant right after delivery. But we know from lots of studies that there are effects that are diffused throughout the brain and body throughout childhood and possibly even into adulthood," said Flynn.
Flynn says she also wants to look into the mental health aspect of opioid abuse.
"By some estimate, at least half of people who use opioids and other drugs also have a mental health disorder. So the real question becomes whether or not it's sufficient just to address the substance abuse or whether or not you need to treat the co-occurring mental health and other medical conditions that these people are struggling with," said Flynn.
Flynn has previously worked on the statewide suicide prevention task force.
The opioid task force is made up of 21 members. DeSantis finalized his appointments to the board this week.