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2023 data show Escambia County's opioid overdose crisis is worsening.

Escambia EMS reported a 19% in opioid overdose emergency calls from 2021 to 2023.
Escambia EMS reported a 19% in opioid overdose emergency calls from 2021 to 2023.

Updated statistics show Escambia EMS ran 10,529 opiate overdose calls from 2021 to 2023, far more than neighboring counties. The demographics and neighborhoods affected were widespread.

While efforts to address the opioid overdose crisis in Escambia County are gaining momentum, the number of overdoses from the drug continues to rise.

Updated statistics show Escambia Emergency Medical Services ran a total of 10,529 opiate overdose calls from 2021 to 2023, with 3,753 overdose calls from Jan. 1 through Dec. 10 of 2023.

“To put it into perspective, Santa Rosa (County) over the same time period had 1,098, and Okaloosa (County) was 1,897,” said Joey Kerman, designated lead for Escambia’s Coordinated Opioid Recovery (CORE)program on behalf of EMS. “At the time, it was a 16% increase for Escambia County,”

Further demonstrating the problem, in just the final three weeks of the 2023, there were over 160 additional opioid overdose calls, pushing the increase to 19%.

Kerman presented the data to the Escambia County Opioid Abatement Funding Advisory Board during a Jan. 8 meeting.

“The demographic makeup was 55% male, 45% female,” Kerman stated, adding that the race and ethnicity breakdown was 74% white, 21.5% Black, and 3% Hispanic and Latino.

That breakdown is fairly close to the overall racial makeup of Escambia, which, according to the latest data is nearly 68.8 % white, 22.8% Black and 6.5% Hispanic or Latino.

“The primary age range was 30 to 39; they made up 26% of our overdoses, followed by 40 to 49. They made up 16.2%. Then (age) 20 to 29 made up 15%,” said Kerman.

Current data is available on the EMS Dashboard.

A color-coded map he presented to the board showed the locations of EMS overdose calls, reflecting widespread deployment throughout the county.

“The bottom line and the principle of the map is that it affects every single community in Escambia County, from north to south, from the key to Gulf Breeze to Pensacola Beach,” he declared.

EMS Chief David Torsell, who oversees the state-supported CORE network in Escambia, reiterated the point by noting that :addiction has no biases."

“It impacts all ethnicities, all populations and all age groups,” said Torsell. "Certainly, we see some specific numbers that are a little higher or a little lower, but it impacts everybody. Nobody is exempt from being impacted negatively by addiction and mental health.”

And because it’s impossible to track citizen-administered Narcan, an overdose reversal drug now available for public use, the opioid problem likely is worse.

With initial funding of $600,000, Escambia joined CORE in the summer of 2022. It’s one of a few counties chosen to pilot the program, which is a comprehensive network of addiction and opioid treatment.

 This map shows the hotspot of opioid overdoses in Escambia County. In the north end, the largest concentration of overdoses was in Century with a total of 31.
Escambia County
This map shows the hotspot of opioid overdoses in Escambia County. In the north end, the largest concentration of overdoses was in Century with a total of 31.

Torsell says after about eight months of organizing, the program took off very quickly.

He noted the successful use of medication-assisted therapy (MAT), improved relationships with local hospitals and other partners, and wraparound services delivered by nurses and emergency medical technicians on staff.

Also, as individuals complete the addiction treatment component and declare the program to be life-saving, the word is spreading.

“One of the things that we see as a result of that is as people that have addiction therapy and mental health issues gain that trust and have others that are friends of theirs that let them know, ‘Hey, there's this program; you can trust these people. They're here for you. They're going to help you,’” he began. “Now we have more people reaching out than we can keep up with.”

In short, the EMS chief says with four CORE nurses and two EMTs, he does not have enough "boots on the ground" to handle the growing volume of people who need to be inducted into the program.

“The initial thing for us is going to be getting additional staffing,” he stated. “I think community-based resources we need. We need more facilities that are able to handle these patients. We need more bed space availability. We need more, mental, health, and addiction therapy professionals.”

The biggest gaps in the program involve a lack of space for the treatment of minors and women, particularly pregnant women.

With a new and improved mechanism for funding through the Florida Department of Children & Family’s Northwest Florida Health Network, Torsell is looking to hire a social worker to help identify local resources and connect individuals with the services they need.

Down the road, he’d like to double the CORE nursing staff to eight, and says he’s excited about Lakeview Center’s plans to open a Central Receiving Facility and Crisis Stabilization Unitearly this year.

Meantime, the panel overseeing Escambia's Opioid Abatement funding of nearly $2.5 million is working to finalize a strategy for spending the money.

A recent community survey of over 200 people, reflective of the overdose demographics, indicated a preference that most of the money go toward programs that address prevention, treatment and recovery efforts.

Already, about $480,000 is going to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office for the purchase of 14 handheld narcotics analyzers, with another $25,000 for a Narcan vending machine.

Copyright 2024 WUWF. To see more, visit WUWF.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.