Pinellas County selected for new program to address opioid crisis, prevent overdose deaths

Every 14 hours, someone died of an accidental drug overdose in Pinellas County last year, according to Dr. Uli Chow, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.

Chow said overdose deaths have increased 46 percent in Pinellas County in the past three years. State health officials said there were more than 8,000 overdose deaths statewide last year.

Pinellas County is one of 13 counties in Florida where state health leaders are taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the opioid crisis. It’s called the Coordinated Network for Opioid Recovery (CORE).

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Healthcare professionals, community partners, treatment centers, and local and state agencies work together to treat patients beyond overdose.

“Opioid use disorder, I have to say, I think the medical community is a little late to the game in recognizing this as a chronic life-threatening and relapsing lifelong disease,” Dr. Kenneth A. Schepke, M.D. . Florida DOH Secretary of Health, said. “The patient is expected to navigate this system on their own, they’re discharged from the emergency room, they overdose again, and again, and the cycle continues. It’s a failed system, and it’s one that ends today.”

The program addresses food insecurity, housing, stable employment, mental health needs and provides peer counselors to help and support patients in the treatment process.

“It really does take a village,” Schepke said. “Instead of asking a patient with this disease to navigate this complex medical system on their own, we’re going to navigate the patient through it, assess them, find out what they need and move them from one step to the next.”

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Dr. Eric Shamas, an emergency room physician at Bayfront Health in St. Petersburg, said he is confident CORE will provide resources that will save lives.

“We don’t leave them stranded,” Shamas said. “Then we’re not sending them, as we mentioned before, to navigate a system that’s really difficult to navigate. We partner them with peer advisors.”

Belinda Brown is now the director of detox at the addiction treatment center, Operation PAR. She remembers exactly where she was more than two decades ago when she decided to get help for substance abuse.

“I had lost everything,” she said. “I had lost my children. I had lost my family, I had lost all hope, really,” Brown said. “I was on a park bench. Some of the old drunken boys started a fire. It was raining. There was nowhere to go and I woke up and they had put a cardboard on me and all I could do at that point was cry and that’s when I knew I needed help.”

Brown said if he had CORE as an option, it would have made a difference.

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The program can be accessed whether you overdose or not.

“Instead of just focusing on the crash, now we have a way to prevent and now we have a way to make sure they get the treatment they need, just like if you have high blood pressure,” Shamas said. “Make sure you get to your doctor’s appointments. You take your medicine and hopefully keep people from dying.”

If you think you need help, health care leaders said call a local addiction treatment center like Operation PAR in Pinellas or 988 to get started.

They said they chose the counties to launch the network based on the need in the county, the highest overdose rates and which ones have the infrastructure, such as Pinellas, which has already launched local initiatives.

It is also in Manatee, Pasco and Citrus counties. State officials said they hope to expand to other counties soon.

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