Katherine Lewin

Florida Times-Union

As the number of opioid overdoses has trended upward in Jacksonville in the last few years, the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

Opioid overdoses and calls for service for overdoses to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department are on track to match if not surpass the numbers seen in 2020.

Medical professionals and politicians attribute much of the rise to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but much more potent.

It has become easier to get on the street during the pandemic. So at a time when doctors aren’t prescribing opioids as often, people are instead looking to street dealers, who are selling fentanyl and other substances laced with the powerful synthetic drug, from cocaine to marijuana.

Combine that with a mental health crisis as the delta variant of the coronavirus ravages Florida, particularly Duval County, and officials are seeing deadly results.

“This pandemic has created, over the last 15 months, chronic stress, collective trauma and chronic grief and as a result, we have a national mental health crisis in this country,” Christine Cauffield, CEO of LSF Health Systems, told The Times-Union. “It’s also fueling the escalating … overdose deaths primarily caused by substances laced with fentanyl.”

Florida law enforcement, city, health care and nonprofit leaders came together for two separate webinars this week hoping to spread awareness of the opioid epidemic and soon start seeing a decrease in overdoses.

Duval County has seen increases in overdose deaths in the past five years. More than 500 people died in Duval County from overdoses or other complications from drug use in 2020, a five-year high in drug-related deaths, according to data from the District 4 Medical Examiner’s Office.

Hundreds of doses of naloxone distributed each month

Opioid overdoses and calls for service for overdoses to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department are on track to match if not surpass the numbers seen in 2020. There have already been 2,005 opioid-related overdoses in 2021, compared to 2,128 in 2020 during the same time period.

Data from the department shows that there was a steady increase in calls for help, doses of naloxone given and opioid-related overdoses from 2015 until the summer of 2020, when numbers started to decrease. That decrease ended about six months later in February of 2021.

Since February, those numbers have climbed back up to what the department was seeing at the beginning of the pandemic.

According to data from the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, from January 2021 through the end of July, the fire department has responded to 2,928 calls about an overdose and given 2,878 doses of naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, which is designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

The number of calls for an overdose in 2021 is catching up to 2020’s total of 3,468 calls for help.

In July alone, there were 518 doses of naloxone distributed and 322 opioid-related overdoses.

Andrea Bailey, the founder of Project Opioid, a Central Florida-based coalition created to confront the opioid overdose crisis in communities across the state, told listeners at a Wednesday virtual Project Opioid meeting that “nobody has been spared” by the crisis despite a decrease in doctors prescribing opioids.

“There really has been some positive movement,” Bailey said. “But we’re probably going to have to have better solutions than just a reduction in prescription opioids if we’re going to save lives.”

Part of saving lives for the medical community is addressing mental health, something local treatment centers have found challenging.

Lantie Jorandby, the medical director at Lakeview Health, a residential substance abuse disorder treatment center, said the patients that she has seen since the start of the pandemic have been “much sicker.”

“They were sicker with mental health issues. They were more severe with their substance use. People had been locked at home for months and had been working from home and a lot of them relapsed on their substance of choice. And it was pretty severe,” Jorandby said.

Her patients are struggling with more extreme mood disorders, suicidal behaviors and self-harm.

There has also been a noticeable change in the demographics of those who are overdosing and dying. In Duval this year, 16 percent of deaths were of Black or African-American people. The group made up 8 percent of deaths in 2014. The numbers of white people dying simultaneously decreased from 88 percent of deaths in 2014 to 77 percent in 2021.

The Latinx population in Jacksonville saw a slight increase in opioid deaths, from 2 to 4 percent over the last five years.

On Wednesday, City Councilman Terrance Freeman called the change “devastating” and “heartbreaking.”

“The one term that I always resort back to, especially when we start talking about issues in the Black community, is access,” Freeman said at Wednesday’s meeting. “But we live in one city and we’re one family. And it’s our job that when our brothers and sisters are struggling that we step up and do our part to try to assist them.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or substance abuse, use the library of resources offered at projectopioid.org/help.