Capt. Todd Shear, special investigations division, Manatee County Sheriff's Office, talks about the department's efforts in battling the heroin epidemic in Manatee County. Shear was one of four panel members addressing the Manatee Tiger Bay Club on Thursday at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in Bradenton. With him are Chief Stephen Krivjanik, Manatee County EMS, and Melissa Larkin-Skinner, chief clinical officer of Centerstone Florida. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald
One heroin addict was found dead in a Palmetto parking lot. The Bradenton Police Department received three overdose calls within 11 minutes one July weekend, and Manatee County EMS responded to 57 overdose calls over the July Fourth weekend. Another user survived an overdose after being found on the floor of a restroom of the Manatee County Department of Health, an ironic twist to an out-of-control heroin crisis here and elsewhere.
Law enforcement, emergency medical responders and mental health experts have been hard pressed to keep up with this drug-abuse epidemic much less contain the intractable scourge.
The casualty numbers are chilling, as the audience at Thursday's Manatee Tiger Bay Club luncheon heard: overdoses in July were 1,554 percent higher than in the same month last year; heroin purity has skyrocketed from about 10 percent in the 1970s and 1980s to around 40 and 60 percent today; plus, fentanyl, a drug prescribed for chronic pain and cancer that is 100 times more potent than morphine, is frequently cut into heroin. Fentanyl gets much of the blame for the surge in overdoses.
Overdose deaths in Manatee County soared to 86 through mid-June, a mind-boggling jump from a 2014 total of 63 and 19 in 2013, Herald reporter Kate Irby cited in an Aug. 30 article which continues her in-depth series of reports on the "Heroin Epidemic in Manatee." Nothing better illustrates the growing devastation as those figures.
Manatee County Emergency Medical Services Chief Steve Krivjanik relayed another startling statistic at the luncheon: In July alone, EMS treated 35 repeat overdose victims, heroin's grip being so strong.
A drug called narcan blocks heroin's deadly impact and forces withdrawal, saving lives. To date this year, EMS has administered 1,008 doses of narcan -- another sign of the depth of the epidemic.
Public perception of drug abuse and addiction hinders societal efforts to mount a full-scale assault on the devastating and costly issue. This is not a problem where simple personal weakness can be overcome by sheer will. People are not evil or stupid, and nobody chooses to become an addict. Genetics accounts for much of the problem as does a person's environment, whether that be mentally escaping child abuse or other issues.
Plus, heroin changes the part of the brain that governs behavior, robbing people of judgment and free will, Melissa Larkin-Skinner, the chief clinical officer and mental health counselor with Centerstone Behavioral Hospital, told the Tiger Bay crowd. The public needs to "reduce the stigma" of addiction, she said. That would be an antidote to ill-informed positions.
That erroneous perception seems to influence elected officials, too, especially in Florida. The state's disgraceful ranking in funding for mental health care, second to dead last in the nation, impedes life-saving addiction treatment.
Manatee County is not alone with an overburdened mental health care system. The lack of resources to serve addicts seeking help -- with a constant waiting list at Centerstone, Larkin-Skinner noted -- contributes to our growing crisis.
While more money is not the answer to every problem, in this case it would help tremendously. But most of the bills addressing behavioral health and addiction treatment in the 2015 regular session of the Legislature failed. (Centerstone, formerly Manatee Glens, is the only county mental health treatment facility that receives state and federal funds.)
Manatee County's legislative delegation heard that resources message in late August during a public gathering where substance abuse dominated the conversation. "We have to get a handle on this," Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, told the crowd "It's destroying kids, it's destroying families, it's destroying adults." That message should be drilled into the heads of all lawmakers.
Law enforcement is focused on this, too, Manatee County Sheriff's Capt. Todd Shear said. Every deputy receives extensive training on drug issues and corralling dealers. There have been 114 heroin arrests this year.
The MCSO, like other law enforcement agencies, is also focused on saving lives by following Florida's Good Samaritan Act, which shields users, family and friends from arrest and prosecution for seeking medical care for a drug overdose victim.>
A courageous BrandilynKarnehm got a bit emotional in recounting her story of heroin addiction and recovery to the Tiger Bay audience, earning a standing ovation for her candid remarks. Her drug of choice before graduating to heroin was the pain-killer oxycodone, a "soul-sucking" opioid all too popular during Florida's pill mill days, since eliminated. Sober for more than two years, Karnehm stated the problem that addicts encounter: "I lived to use and used to live."
But after dozens of times in jail and detoxification, she beat her addiction -- thanks, she said, to the "tough love" from family and friends who quit enabling her drug abuse. "I have dreams and goals again," she said.
So many more addicts need that opportunity, that life preserver that comes with successful behavioral treatment. Florida must do better on this.
In Luke 2:7, the Bible tells the tale of the birth of Jesus. "And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
There needs to be room at the inn for addicts seeking treatment.