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Escambia County continues to have alarming number of opioid overdoses

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, is facing thousands of lawsuits seeking to hold it accountable for the opioid crisis.
Toby Talbot

While efforts to address the opioid overdose crisis in Escambia County are gaining momentum, the number of opioid overdoses continues to rise.

Updated statistics show Escambia Emergency Medical Services (EMS) ran a combined total of 10,529 opiate overdose calls over the last three years (from 2021-23), with 3,753 overdose calls from January 1 through December 10 of 2023.

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“To put it into perspective, Santa Rosa over the same time period had 1,098, and Okaloosa was 1,897,” said Joey Kerman, designated lead for the county’s Coordinated Opioid Recovery (CORE) Networkprogram on behalf of EMS. “At the time, it was a 16% increase for Escambia County,”

Further demonstrating how bad the problem is, in just the final three weeks of the last year, there were over 160 additional opioid overdose calls, pushing the increase to 19%.

Kerman presented the new data to members of the Escambia County Opioid Abatement Funding Advisory Board during their recent Jan. 8 meeting.

“The demographic makeup was 55% male, 45% female,” Kerman stated, adding that the race and ethnicity breakdown was 74% White, 21.5% Black, and 3% Hispanic and Latino.

That breakdown is fairly close to the overall racial makeup of Escambia County, which, according to the latest census.gov data is nearly 69% (68.8) White, almost 23% (22.8) Black, and 6.5% Hispanic or Latino.

Other demographics highlighted the age of opioid overdose victims.

“The primary age range was 30 to 39; they made up 26% of our overdoses, followed by 40 to 49. They made up 16.2%. Then (age) 20 to 29 made up 15%,” said Kerman.

Current data is available on the EMS Dashboard.

RELATED:Lives being saved with new opioid recovery program in Escambia County

A color-coded map he presented to members of the advisory board showed the location of the EMS overdose calls, reflecting widespread use throughout the county.

“The bottom line and the principle of the map is that it affects every single community in Escambia County, from north to south, from the key to Gulf breeze to Pensacola Beach,” he declared.

EMS Chief David Torsell, who oversees Escambia County’s CORE program, reiterated the point by noting that ‘addiction has no biases.’

“It impacts all ethnicities, all populations, and all age groups,” said Torsell. "Certainly, we see some specific numbers that are a little higher or a little lower, but it impacts everybody. Nobody is exempt from being impacted negatively by addiction and mental health.”

And because it’s impossible to track citizen-administered Narcan, which is now widely available for public use, the opioid overdose problem likely is worse.

With initial funding of $600,000, Escambia joined CORE in the summer of 2022. It’s one of a few counties chosen to pilot the program, which is a comprehensive network of addiction and opioid treatment.

This map shows the hotspot of opioid overdoses in Escambia County. In the north end, the largest concentration of overdoses was in Century with a total of 31.
Escambia County
This map shows the hotspot of opioid overdoses in Escambia County. In the north end, the largest concentration of overdoses was in Century with a total of 31.

Chief Torsell says after about eight months of organizing, the program took off very quickly.

He noted the successful use of medication-assisted therapy (MAT), improved relationships with local hospitals and other partners, and wraparound services delivered by nurses and EMTs on staff. Also, as individuals complete the addiction treatment component, and declare the program to be life-saving, the word is spreading.

“One of the things that we see as a result of that is as people that have addiction therapy and mental health issues gain that trust and have others that are friends of theirs that let them know, ‘Hey, there's this program; you can trust these people. They're here for you. They're going to help you,’” he began. “Now we have more people reaching out than we can keep up with.”

In short, the EMS chief says with four CORE nurses and two EMTs, he does not have enough "boots on the ground" to handle the growing volume of people who need to be inducted into the program.

“The initial thing for us is going to be getting additional staffing,” he stated. “I think community-based resources we need. We need more facilities that are able to handle these patients. We need more bed space availability. We need more, mental, health, and addiction therapy professionals.”

RELATED: Only 1 in 5 people with opioid addiction get the medications to treat it, study finds

The biggest gaps in the program involve a lack of space for the treatment of minors and women, particularly pregnant women.

With a new and improved mechanism for funding through the Florida Department of Children and Family’s (DCF) Northwest Florida Health Network, Torsell is looking to next hire a social worker to help identify local resources and connect individuals with the services they need.

Down the road, he’d like to double his CORE nursing staff from four to eight, and says he’s excited about Lakeview Center’s plans to open a Central Receiving Facility and Crisis Stabilization Unitearly this year.

Meantime, the panel overseeing Escambia County’s Opioid Abatement funding of nearly $2.5 million is working to finalize a strategy for spending the money.

A recent community survey of over 200 people, reflective of the overdose demographics, indicated their preference that most of the money go toward programs that address prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts.

Already, about $480,000 is going to the Escambia Sheriff’s Office for the purchase of 14 handheld narcotics analyzers, with another $25,000 for a Narcan vending machine.

The board’s next meeting is Feb. 12 at 10 a.m.

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.