“The nation is now facing the tragic combined effects of a mental health and overdose crisis that must be met with an urgent response in order to save lives,” said Crestview Mayor JB Whitten.
On Jan. 18, Crestview held an Overdose Summit to educate the community on the current opioid crisis and to collaborate on ways the community can combat it.
Whitten attended a webinar with the Florida League of Mayors last year and heard a presentation from Andrae Bailey, founder and CEO of Project Opioid.
Project Opioid is a nonprofit organization designed to help community leaders find ways to reduce opioid deaths in their community. Whitten contacted Bailey and partnered with Shalimar Mayor Mark Franks, who is also the president of the Northwest Florida League of Cities, to host Project Opioid at the summit.
Crestview Police Chief Stephen McCosker shared his experiences throughout his career and the progression of drug abuse. He explained how in the ‘90s, heroin potency grew to dangerous levels. It was coming into the country at 97-98% pure, resulting in increased deaths.
He recounted a story of an 18- or 19-year-old selling heroin to high school students at a diner in Orlando.
“They weren’t students on the fringe. There were cheerleaders, football players that came through, and a whole assortment of people,” McCosker said. “People of all walks of life were walking in and partaking in that.”
A similar situation is happening now. There are many people addicted to opioids with the increased dangers of fentanyl.
In Crestview, there were 79 overdose calls last year.
Since 2019, there has been a 100% increase in overdose calls and a 150% increase in Narcan usage in Okaloosa County. Narcan is a potentially lifesaving nasal spray medication that can revive someone who has overdosed on opioids.
Okaloosa County residents have asked who is overdosing. What groups of people make up these numbers?
“Everyone had the perception that this was not city residents and not a Fort Walton problem,” said Fort Walton Beach Police Chief Robert Bage. “We were wrong, 58% of calls were city residents.”
Data uncovered there were no economic barriers. It is not an isolated issue toward the homeless and people not of the working and upper class. Only 10% of overdose calls were for homeless people. Males made up 78% of the overdose calls and 60% were between the ages of 25 and 45.
Bailey, founder and CEO of Project Opioid, held a presentation focused on the change of drug abuse and how the community needs to come together to evolve efforts to save lives and battle the opioid crisis.
Audience members who had personally known someone who overdosed on drugs stood up and demonstrated the impact the crisis has on everyone in the community. More than a one-third of the audience stood. Even more had experienced the impacts of drug abuse in their families and friends.
“My baby boy was 22-years-old and bought a Percocet in FWB. It was laced with Fentanyl, and he passed away,” Stephanie McMinn, founder and executive director of Be Generous, said.
McMinn said she was blessed with still having her granddaughter, but faces the daily struggle of hearing such demands as “I want to talk to my daddy” from the little girl.
Members teared up as they related to the story and felt the pain such circumstances cause.
Another citizen shared how her grandson’s mother died during a relapse after being clean for several years.
Bailey cautioned the audience about the severity of relapsing right now. Years ago, an addict could relapse multiple times and still have a chance of recovering.
Unfortunately, relapses could now result in death due to the dangerous levels of fentanyl in distributed drugs.
A video demonstrated how groups of people manufactured Fentanyl in barrels in the middle of the woods. These unregulated methods can lead to inconsistent doses. Even the young manufacturers in the video most likely perished due to being exposed to such lethal doses, Bailey said.
Fentanyl is also being pressed into fake pills mimicking other medications like Percocet and Oxycodone. It can be difficult to distinguish a fake pill from a real one on appearance alone, Bailey said. The defined markings on the fake pill would result in the average person believing it was real.
This makes it even more important to educate middle school, high school and college-age students about the true drug situation, Bailey said. Many surveyed groups indicated students were not aware of the overdose crisis or the current situation with Fentanyl pills.
A video message from Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody highlighted the funds accumulated to put back into resources.
“Early this year we secured historical agreements through our litigation to hold opioid distributors, manufacturers and pharmaceutical (companies) accountable for their role in fueling the opioid crisis,” Moody said in the video.
More than $3 billion was recovered, and a portion assisted with making the ATLAS website available statewide. ATLAS is a website, www.treatmentatlas.org, created to help people search for and compare addiction treatment facilities.
Dana Clah, Crestview’s Citizen of the Year for 2022 and founder of the Emerald Coast Life Center, explained how a coalition within the community needs to be formed to battle this crisis. She suggested the coalition be made up of government, business, church, hospital, education, and other community members and leaders to address this crisis.
Properly educating people on the dangers, showing them how to be compassionate, and providing resources for help are all ways a coalition could help, Clah said.“It’s time to take back our community. Loving one person at a time,” Clah said. “Getting in the trenches with (those who are suffering) and getting them connected to all these systems of care.”