Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) has reported a record-setting spike in drug overdoses.
A lethal dose of the painkilling opioid Fentanyl is 2 milligrams, almost imperceptible, but the PCSO Narcotics Unit removed 435,000 lethal doses of the drug from the county’s streets during a six-week period.
The story doesn’t stop there.
Aided by a federal grant, the PCSO has established a Behavioral Health Intervention Team, which helps citizens with mental-health issues or substance-abuse problems. Members of the 16-person team contact overdose survivors within 48 hours of the incident, then connect them with community rehabilitation partners such as BayCare.
According to Sheriff’s Office records, Pasco County overdoses reached an all-time monthly high of 167 (37 fatal) in May, then maintained a steady pace in June (146, 18 fatal); July (140, nine fatal); and August (147, 24 fatal).
From 2017-2019, the largest overdose total in any month was 89.
In 2020, there were startling overdose upticks in May (297% increase), June (239% increase), July (204% increase) and August (234% increase), compared to the average of those month’s totals in the previous three years.
But, to Pasco County Sheriff’s Capt. Toni Roach, the key number is 49. Those are the people who have been placed under the care of a substance-abuse program because of the intervention team’s work.
“I know that doesn’t seem like a large number, but we’re running at about a 25% commitment into a program (after intervention),’’ Roach said. “That’s (49) people I know who aren’t going to potentially overdose and die in our community. That’s because the detective has been able to engage them and help them get appointments with behavioral health providers.
“We’ve created a path, giving these overdose subjects a golden ticket, getting them to the head of the line for services. These overdose subjects, they overdose, they almost die and they want help. “The overall effects of withdrawal and addiction manifest themselves within the first 24 hours. That’s why it’s crucial to get to them before they use again. If we get them into services quickly and reduce the withdrawal effects, they’re going to be more successful in staying,” she said.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to follow through, though.
Roach said the intervention team has worked with approximately 1,000 overdose follow-up assignments in the last year. About one-third of the subjects couldn’t be located, potentially because they were homeless, transient or intentionally avoiding authorities.
For subjects who are located, about half of them are interested in services. Most of the time, Roach said, they don’t know where to start.
“We have that hard conversation and tell them, ‘This is your rock bottom, and we’re here to help you,’” Roach said. “We help take away all the excuses. We do all the legwork and take people to their first appointment. If the process is intimidating or they don’t have transportation, we get them that help.’’
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, that help has been needed more than ever.
“We definitely saw an increase in the overdose numbers and there were multiple potential reasons,’’ Roach said. “Some of it was stimulus related. When the stimulus checks came out, some people partied like it was 1999. The substance abuse community relies heavily on peer support and interaction. So when we stopped meeting in person, churches closed and things went online, it wasn’t the same as having that human interaction.
“The whole aspect of social isolation has been a huge part of the pandemic and overall mental health. No doubt, isolation has played into it in a very big way,” she said.
Fentanyl also plays into it in a very big way. It’s the drug of concern for local officials.
“It’s extremely cheap and it’s extremely addictive because of its potency level,’’ Roach said. “It creates a bigger problem for us. The things that seemed more benign by comparison, such as marijuana, can now overdose and kill you because it’s now laced with something that is very fatal and highly toxic. It throws our entire community into a new playing field.’’
But, the intervention team continues to make headway.
“We’ve had a lot of great wins during this process,’’ Roach said. “As time goes on and we learn more and more, I think it will be even more effective.’’
By Joey Johnston
Published October 07, 2020