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Escambia County starting program to fight opioid overdose and addiction

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019 file photo, a fire medic holds a box containing naloxone hydrochloride which is carried in all their department's emergency response vehicles, in Akron, Ohio.
Keith Srakocic
FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019 file photo, a fire medic holds a box containing naloxone hydrochloride which is carried in all their department's emergency response vehicles, in Akron, Ohio.

Escambia County is gearing up to launch a new addiction stabilization program.

It’s part of Florida’s new Coordinated Opioid Recovery (CORE) network, which is aimed at curbing the ongoing opioid epidemic.

Locally, there’s a desperate need.

“Escambia County, unfortunately, ranks number one in overdose and death related to fentanyl, heroin, opioid, cocaine,” declared Chandra Smiley, CEO of Community Health Northwest Florida, in reference to statewide data from 2019 and 2020.

“So, we definitely have a significant problem here in Escambia County.”

The state program will be coordinated through the Department of Health, the Department of Children and Families, and the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Locally, Community Health and partner organizations including Escambia County Emergency Medical Services, the county’s three hospitals and Florida Department of Health in Escambia have been meeting for several weeks to get organized.

“We’re very fortunate that, although you have systems that could be - outside of this particular program - competitors, they’re all at the same table with the same intention and the same goal in mind,” said Smiley. “That’s just to get this program off the ground because they know it’s going to save lives.”

In August, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the expansion of the CORE network. This means the state's one-of-its-kind model of addiction care, successfully piloted in Palm Beach County, will be established in twelve additional counties, including Escambia.

DeSantis touts the network for its ability to streamline resources and break down barriers for those battling addiction.

“The three-pronged approach to recovery includes the important rescue response that our EMTs do,” the governor began.

The model of care also includes stabilization and assessment of the individual patient and long-term treatment.

As noted by DeSantis, when it comes to saving overdose victims and helping them beat addiction, first responders are the tip of the spear.

In Escambia County, Emergency Medical Services Manager David Torsell has been on the job for about a year.

“One of the biggest things that I identified immediately was the copious amounts of overdoses that we’re running,” said Torsell, who has 26 years of service in public safety.

“I have never seen a situation in my experience as bad as I have in this community. Our overdose situation is horrendous.”

The EMS chief gave Escambia County commissioners an update at their Sept. 8 Committee of the Whole workshop.

“Last year, as you can see, we ran 1,095 overdose calls and there were 1,391 Narcan administrations,” he said. “Now, the reason, obviously, those two numbers aren’t exact is because there are patients that required more than a single dose of Narcan to pull them out of their opioid state.”

Data presented for 2022 showed there were over 1,400 EMS responses for overdose, primarily from fentanyl, with over 1,100 doses of Naloxone administered.

“Just in the first six months of this year, we surpassed the entire last year's number of overdoses in the entire year in the first six months of this year,” Torsell declared.

Escambia County is on pace to hit 1,800 doses of Naloxone or Narcan by the end of the year. Shockingly, Torsell said his crew recently used the medication to revive an infant.

For the most part, Escambia’s program will follow the general CORE model. That begins with rescue/response, transportation to a local hospital for treatment, and a referral so individuals can enter a long-term treatment plan.

But, Torsell says there’s a gap, locally, that leaves overdose patients vulnerable to repeating the addiction cycle while they’re waiting for their first long-term care appointment.

That’s why Escambia’s model will be modified to provide wraparound service, to include what’s called community paramedicine.

“Community paramedicine can go out, find these people where they are, meet with these people on a regular basis, have that face-to-face interaction, the warm hand-off,” he explained.

These daily interactions, involving medical services personnel and peer addiction support, will include a check on vital signs, and an assessment of other needs including other medicines, food, and a phone to be in touch.

A big part of the wraparound service also will come from Community Health of Northwest Florida. The low-cost outpatient clinic is participating in the opioid stabilization model as a federally qualified health center (FQHC), authorized to receive federal funds to expand access to the community’s uninsured and under-insured.

“Once a patient has agreed to be a part of the program, they’re then linked into care and services in our organization,” said CEO Smiley.

“So, they’re not only getting MAT (medically-assisted treatment) services, but they’re also getting primary care services, dental services, behavioral health and wellness, pharmacy, optometry, all the services we provide under our roof.”

Additionally, Community Health’s status as an FQHC, certifies them to purchase the much-needed overdose medication Naxolone (Narcan) for $30 a dose.

Escambia is receiving approximately $1.4 million from the state to launch the program, with the money to come in over three years.

“What would we do if the state stopped funding it,” asked Commissioner Lumon May, noting that it will be hard to stop the program once it’s started.

Noting a number of one-time costs, including upfront funding for additional hospital beds and purchase of a new response vehicle, and adequate staffing moving forward, EMS chief Torsell answered, yes.

“If a year goes by or two years go by and they go, ‘Listen, everything fell through; there’s no more money,’ that’s okay. We can still continue to do what we’re doing.”

Escambia’s Addiction Stabilization Model is scheduled to launch by the end of October.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.