Florida groups spread harm reduction message to spring breakers

In the days that followed a group of West Point Cadets during spring break were sickened by fentanyl-containing cocaine at a house party in South Florida, community activists took action.

They bombarded beaches, warned springs of an increase in recreational drugs cut with the dangerous synthetic opioid and offered an antidote to overdoses, which have spiked nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Street crews stood in the scorching sun, handing out beads, pamphlets and samples of naloxone, a drug known under the brand name Narcan, which can revive overdose victims.

“We didn’t know how people would react,” said Thomas Smith, director of behavioral health services for The Special Purpose Outreach Team, a local mobile medical program. “But spring break was great. Some people say, ‘I don’t do drugs, but my friend sometimes does something stupid.’ They are happy to have Narcan.

Smith’s team pulls up on the beach in Fort Lauderdale in a brightly colored mobile van. They walk the sidewalks parallel to the beach, through the main strip of bustling beachfront clubs and restaurants.

“Have you heard of Narcan? Huston Ochoa, clinical advisor for The SPOT, asked Tristan Gentles on a recent afternoon as music blared from the Elbo Room, a bar in the heart of Fort Lauderdale beach.

Gentles, who worked as a bartender and bouncer in New York before moving to Fort Lauderdale, said he appreciated their efforts.

“You can’t do much when you see someone on the floor,” he said, adding that he witnessed many overdoses during his days in New York.

A sniffle, a swallow, a blow can kill. It’s not just in Florida, but all over North America.

Jim hall, retired epidemiologist from nova southeastern university

Fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, which can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin or prescription opioids, are what make binges so dangerous, said David Scharf, who oversees community programs at the office of the sheriff of Broward and is the chairman of the county Opioid. Community Response Team.

Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that for the first time more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in a 12-month period. About two-thirds of the deaths were linked to fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. The stress of the coronavirus pandemic and the use of fentanyl are considered factors in increased deaths, according to preliminary reports from the CDC.

Related: Her son died of fentanyl. Now this mom is pleading for a tool that could save lives

Broward County led the state in fentanyl deaths in 2020, the latest year for which statistics are available from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. In the vast majority of deaths, fentanyl was combined with another drug, the sheriff’s office said.

“A sniff, a swallow, a poke can kill,” said Jim Hall, a retired epidemiologist from Nova Southeastern University who worked with the county’s Opioid Response Team. “It’s not just in Florida, but all over North America.”

In the first three months of 2022, Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue responded to 373 calls involving a possible overdose, where Narcan was administered, Battalion Chief Stephen Gollan said. That’s an average of more than four a day.

The reaction in Broward was swift after the five US Military Academy cadets overdosed at Wilton Manors on March 10, as thousands of students headed to Fort Lauderdale for spring break.

The following Monday, more than 100 people representing agencies ranging from law enforcement to social service organizations and hospitals met via Zoom to devise a plan to keep the spring breakers safe.

Groups such as The SPOT and the South Florida Wellness Network, which partner with United Way of Broward County, have agreed to go to beaches to tell people about the dangers associated with fentanyl-containing drugs. They also spoke to restaurant and bar owners who could hand out Narcan if “someone broke down,” Scharf said.

The groups have so far distributed more than 2,000 doses of Narcan provided through state grants. SPOT volunteers handed out packages containing two doses of nasal spray along with instructions.

Huston Ochoa, a clinical advisor for The Spot, hands out samples of Narcan, which can reduce opioid overdoses, to spring breakers on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., March 31, 2022.
Huston Ochoa, a clinical advisor for The Spot, hands out samples of Narcan, which can reduce opioid overdoses, to spring breakers on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., March 31, 2022.Freida Frisaro/AP

“It was kind of a blitzkrieg to get out there as quickly as possible and get as much information and Narcan out on the streets,” Scharf said.

Volunteer groups and the sheriff’s office don’t have figures on how many doses distributed were actually used, but believe the program was successful in raising awareness.

The region is not yet out of the spring break period, which runs until mid-April, but Scharf said organizers have been encouraged to see a few weekends pass without any overdoses leading to emergency calls.

“We had nothing, which is like the first time in forever that we didn’t have any,” Scharf said.

It’s about saving one life at a time.

Emy Martinez, Safe Syringe Program Manager

“We had a terrible situation,” with overdoses of cadets and others, and turned it into “an opportunity to really step up our education and prevention efforts by flooding the beaches and the streets,” he said. Scharf.

Smith of The SPOT said the Spring Breakers were “grateful and thankful” and that his group must now plan how to “keep the momentum going”.

To that end, street crews plan to continue working on events that draw large crowds, like this weekend’s sold-out Tortuga Music Festival on the beach in Fort Lauderdale.

“This is about saving lives,” said Emy Martinez, who runs a safe syringe program for The SPOT. “It’s about saving one life at a time.”

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