A panel of community leaders discussed the local impacts of the opioid epidemic, potential solutions and resources to address the problem at a town hall meeting presented by PACT Prevention Coalition on Wednesday, April 11.
Held at the St. Johns County Auditorium in St. Augustine, the event’s panel featured St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar; St. Johns County School District Superintendent Tim Forson; Flagler Hospital Emergency Room Clinical Coordinator Michelle Andrade; ; Epic Behavioral Healthcare Opioid Treatment Team Care Coordinator Clarence Kelley; and Florida National Guard Counter Drug Civil Operations representative Captain Michael Coy. Action News Jax anchor John Bachman moderated the discussion.
Prior to the discussion, event attendees watched a video that focused on the stark impacts of the opioid epidemic in St. Johns County. Last year, the video revealed, St. Johns County Fire Rescue treated 180 overdose patients with Narcan, a medication used to counteract the effects of an opioid overdose. In addition, 63 babies in the county were born addicted to opioids in 2016, according to the video, and 35 people died from opioid overdoses in 2017.
“This is a phenomenon that none of us could have predicted,” said Sheriff Shoar after the video concluded. “This problem is an equal opportunity problem. White, black, rich, poor. I don’t care where you sit.”
Forson echoed Shoar’s sentiments, explaining that the problem is affecting all members of the family, not just teenagers or young adults. As a result, he said it’s incumbent upon community residents to support each other, and avoid the mindset of “not my kids, not my problem.” In addition, Forson stressed the importance of education and intervention at a young age.
Captain Coy also addressed education, or the lack thereof, noting that several people in the community don’t know what to do with pain medications when they no longer need them. To confront this problem, Coy said the Florida National Guard has worked with PACT to create magnets identifying locations of prescription pill drop boxes in St. Johns County. Five such locations exist in the county, he said, at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office substations, the St. Augustine Beach Police Department and St. Augustine Police Department.
Kelley also emphasized the importance of education, encouraging event attendees to be honest with their children at a young age.
From a medical perspective, Dr. Graves said a culture shift must take place to reverse the epidemic. When she first started out in pharmacy 25 years ago, the school of thought was to treat pain with painkillers in abundance. Now, Graves said the medical community understands how wrong that was and must change the culture not only in the health care system but also with those people who have been treated by the health care system.
Andrade noted that in 2017, Flagler Hospital transferred out seven pediatric overdoses to Wolfson Children’s Hospital. She said Flagler has started an opioid stewardship program with an interdisciplinary council charged with addressing what can be done to address the epidemic. Thanks to recent legislation, she said anyone who now comes to the emergency department seeking pain medication will be provided with only three days of medications. Andrade noted it takes six days to become addicted to such medications. Overall, though, Andrade said the medical and treatment community in St. Johns County doesn’t currently have enough resources to adequately address the epidemic.
Following comments from the panelists, Drug Free Duval Executive Director Susan Pitman concluded the evening with a presentation on the impacts of opioids and proposed next steps.