Local leaders launch project Opioid JAX

Local leaders launch project Opioid JAX
Project Opioid North Florida Director of Advocacy (left) T.J. Ward, speaks with Covis General Counsel, Sheryl Johnson and Danis Construction President, Steve Betz, about how opioid addiction and overdose death has affected their families.

About 200 area Jacksonville health and business leaders recently gathered for the kickoff of Project Opioid JAX. While the COVID pandemic has pushed opioids off the front pages, the number of drug overdose deaths in Jacksonville continues to rise.

Florida Blue CEO Pat Geraghty said the COVID epidemic has been a setback for the Opioid death prevention projects across the state. He said the number of people who have overdosed from Opioids greatly increased during the pandemic.

Geraghty said the loss of work and isolation has increased the stress and anxiety among many and has helped lead to a reported increase in drug use.

He said 585 people in Duval County died of a drug overdose in 2020, a 40% increase from 2019 and a 182% increase from 2015. “That’s heading in the wrong direction,” Geraghty said. “The collision of the pandemic and this Opioid epidemic are creating tremendous stress in our community.”

The epidemic continues to hit people from all levels of society.

Danis Construction President Steve Betz lost his son, Tony, and Covis General Counsel Sheryl Johnson her son Alex to an Opioid overdose. Both told about their son’s struggles and those of their families before and after the tragedies.

Betz said there is still a major difficulty getting over the stigmatism addiction entails. He said it can happen to any family. “This disease does not discriminate,” he said. “I think I have a very tight-knit family, a very faith-based family.” But that didn’t prevent drug addiction from happening. Betz also said it’s impossible to fight alone.

Johnson has founded the organization Hearts 4 Minds to help break the stigma of mental illness. She said her family wanted to see what they could do to help others avoid the tragedy they had to face.

“We didn’t have all the tools in our toolbox that we could have used to make different decisions and try different courses of treatment that could have helped (Alex),” she said. “This can happen to anybody.”

Geraghty said some progress has been made with Oxycontin, the most addictive of the Opioids. Often a patient would be prescribed a 30-day supply of Oxycontin when they would only really be needed for a few days. Now three to five days is the standard prescription.

Geraghty said, “When people use one or two (pills), what do they do with the rest?” 

He says medical professionals have done a decent job on the prescription slide of the crisis, but a bigger problem is the increase in the use of Fentanyl.

Fentanyl is similar to morphine but according to the Centers for Disease Control is 50 to 100 times more potent.

Florida Blue and JAX Chamber spearheading a collaborative effort.

JAX Chamber President and CEO Daniel Davis said they got involved because the epidemic is more than a health crisis but also an economic one for the community.

“Every family in our community is connected to this one way or the other,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to eliminate it and help our community heal.”

T.J. Ward is the North Florida Director of Advocacy for Project Opioid. He said the problem could get much worse if the community doesn’t take aggressive action.

“The one thing that each of these statistics has in common, the one thing we cannot ignore, that we must not forget is that each number represents a human life,” Ward said.

Five similar Project Opioid collaborations have been launched around Florida.

By Kevin J. Meerschaert
Resident Community News

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