June 19, 2019

Florida Keys residents can join medical and health professionals to learn about the state of the local opioid and addiction crisis.

Contributed Florida Keys residents can join medical and health professionals to learn about the state of the local opioid and addiction crisis.

MONROE COUNTY — Health professionals can provide mental and medical ammunition to combat “a global epidemic” of opioid addiction that has reached into the Florida Keys.

“It’s becoming increasingly worse with prescription medicine,” said Michael Cunningham, chief executive of the Florida Keys Area Health Education Center. “We’re also finding fentanyl and heroin use. These seem to be the drugs of choice that we’re seeing more and more.

“The opioid epidemic has become one of the largest public health issues, not only locally but nationally. It has become a global epidemic.”

To raise awareness of steps toward recovery or helping those in need, the Keys AHEC will host three meetings throughout Monroe County, beginning Tuesday, June 25, at the Islander Resort in Islamorada. Meetings at the Key West Doubletree Resort on Wednesday, June 26, and at the Marriott Courtyard in Marathon on Thursday, June 27, will follow.

All the sessions, expected to run about 90 minutes, start at 6 p.m. Registration by calling 305-743-7111, ext. 204, is recommended.

Community health workers, clinicians and residents are welcome. Pam McGarvey, an advanced practice RN, and RN Ashley Garbutt lead the meetings.

“We want to make sure folks know and have the information and procedures,” Cunningham said. “It’s important to know where the local resources are if they are suffering from overuse or addition, where they can get help in a nonjudgmental manner.”

A limited supply of free Narcan, a medication that can save a life in an overdose, will be available at the meetings. If demand exceeds the supply, said Cunningham, staff will advise people where they can receive Narcan.

In 2017, Monroe County ranked fifth of all 67 Florida counties, based on per capita population, in opioid deaths, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Medical Examiners Commission.

That numbered about 30 deaths in the Keys. Nationally in 2017, there were about 70,000 overdose deaths with a rate of 21.7 per 100,000 population, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“People with prescriptions may take [opioids] for a legitimate reason, but if they do not manage it properly, they can become addicted,” Cunningham said. “Something that should have been taken care of in the short term may become a long-term addiction.”

Long-term use of prescription opioids can cause the drugs to lose effectiveness in relieving pain.

“The body’s tolerance changes,” Cunningham said. “Next thing the patient knows, they’re taking more and more. One pill becomes two, two becomes three. At some point, the body cannot handle the medication dosage and that can cause an overdose.”

Addicts unable to find a source to get opioids may turn to illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

“The most dangerous is fentanyl,” Cunningham said. “It can be absorbed just by touching the skin [of a user]. That may put those around the user, including children, at risk.”

The three sessions will provide information on Monroe County drug-abuse statistics, local resources, how to identify opiates and first-aid steps to take in an overdose situation.

Also available are a limited number of Deterra disposal bags, which allow a patient with a prescription to safely dispose of leftover medication. By adding water, the disposal bags deactivate chemicals in the pills. The bags are biodegradable.

“This is information that those who may have had a history of usage, or those who have loved ones in that situation, may have a need to know,” Cunningham said.

For more information, call 305-743-7111 or see the Keys AHEC Facebook page.