- Wayne Washington Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Palm Beach County commissioners unanimously approved an action plan Tuesday to address the opioid epidemic roaring through the county and across the state.
That plan calls for the hiring of three new staff members — two in the county’s swamped Medical Examiner’s Office and a senior-level opioid czar — and the expenditure of $3 million over the next two years that would largely be used to pay for treatment efforts. The first $1 million will come from the county’s reserves and will be used to help pay for the new staff members.
Commissioners would have to approve the final $2 million through its regular budget process.
“This is a strong plan that we can begin implementing immediately,” Deputy County Administrator Jon Van Arnam said.
For two and a half hours, commissioners got a stark look at the deadly details of the epidemic from a packed panel of experts including the county’s medical examiner, its health director, the chief circuit judge and representatives from Palm Beach County Fire Rescue and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
They all said, in one way or another, that the scale of the epidemic is unprecedented, that the county is, at the moment, ill-equipped to cope with it and that it is getting worse.
“I’ve been doing this for 38 years,” said Alton Taylor, executive director of the Drug Abuse Foundation of Palm Beach County. “I’ve seen a lot during that time, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Its lethality is unprecedented.”
Even after extensive coverage of the epidemic, which was the subject of a Palm Beach Post special section in November, some commissioners seemed floored by its massive scale of misery and death, which was hammered home during comments from the experts assembled before them.
County Mayor Paulette Burdick pleaded with someone to tell her that researchers were close to finding drugs that can counteract or block the effects of opioids.
“Please tell me that they are close to clinical trials somewhere,” she said.
Dr. Alina Alonso, the county’s health director, told her what she didn’t want to hear.
“There’s a lot of research, but I don’t know of anyone close to clinical trials just yet,” Alonso said.
The county’s 72-page action plan is full of shocking facts, including that there were 1,700 opioid-related calls to PBSO for service in 2016 and that, from 2011 to 2016, heroin-related jail bookings soared by a mind-boggling 2,803 percent.
The area’s drug treatment industry draws addicts from throughout the country, many of whom relapse and overdose in Palm Beach County. Stories in The Post have drawn attention to the problem, and a recent law enforcement crackdown on industry practices and questionable operators has netted more than two dozen arrests.
Dr. Michael Bell, Palm Beach County’s medical examiner, said part of the problem is that addicts are using a deadly combination of opioids, mixing drugs like heroin, cocaine, fentanyl and carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and is used as an anesthetic for elephants.
“It becomes a real challenge to determine what drugs are the real problem and where they are coming from,” Bell said.
After being told that carfentanil is manufactured in China, where it recently has been banned, Commissioner Mack Bernard expressed some hope that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit with President Donald Trump in Palm Beach County will present something of an opportunity.
“I would hope that our president would have a conversation with him about this epidemic that is plaguing our county,” Bernard said.
Trump and other political leaders have talked about the opioid crisis. Commissioner Melissa McKinlay has asked Gov. Rick Scott to declare a public health emergency, which would give him expanded authority and resources.
She wrote Scott a letter in February asking for the public health emergency, but the governor has not issued one. The commissioner asked her colleagues Tuesday to sign a new letter to the governor repeating that call for an emergency declaration.
After the overdose death of a daughter of a former aide, McKinlay took the lead among commissioners in calling for more action to combat the crisis.
She praised panelists Tuesday and asked for applause for two reporters for The Post, Joe Capozzi and Christine Stapleton, who are part of the team of investigative reporters covering the crisis.
Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath joined McKinlay’s call to Scott for an emergency declaration, writing to the governor last week with what he described as “deep and growing concern over the deadly impact the opioid epidemic is having on our state.”
Colbath sat on the panel that laid out the scope of the problem for commissioners.
But commissioners seemed most moved by comments from ordinary citizens like Rick Molt, a plumber in West Palm Beach who described his fight against heroin addiction and urged commissioners to take action.
“I would watch you drive to work and wanted to be like you so bad, but I couldn’t,” Molt said. “There was a hole inside of me.”
Phillip Causey, an addiction counselor who told commissioners that he and members of his family have fought addiction, said not enough has been done to help families.
“The families have been ignored,” he said. “We’ve been dismissed. It’s time we look at the families.”