Salmon shirts proclaimed “Chomp out overdose” at UF Health’s Thursday evening event recognizing International Overdose Awareness Day, with community organizations and individuals attending for different reasons.
Besides awareness, the event served as a time for families and friends to grieve lost loved ones and for those in recovery to share stories of hope. Resource groups held tables, including Gainesville’s Community Resource Paramedicine, Partnership for Strong Families, Out of Harm's Way and others.
One table, staffed by members of UF’s therapeutic horticulture program, had plants and potting soil for a hands-on demonstration of the therapy of gardening.
Jessica Yupanqui, business development specialist for UF’s Psychiatric Hospital, said they hope to hold the event yearly, and while a hurricane—and UF’s first football game—caused concern about attendance, she said it surpassed her expectations.
“There are people that are really committed with this, really committed to spread the word, raise awareness, break stigmas, so I think, no matter what, it worked out very well,” Yupanqui said.
Dr. Kent Mathias spoke on overdose after the COVID-19 pandemic. He said as the pandemic started in 2020, addiction and overdose numbers started rising quickly. The hope among medical professionals, Mathias said, was an abatement once the pandemic ended.
But not all addiction numbers dropped with COVID-19 cases.
“As of 2022, the reported number of deaths is at an all-time high,” Mathias said. “In 2022 alone, 190,680 people died of drug overdoses. That's a record, and 70% of those were due to fentanyl overdose deaths.”
However, he said the overall rate of overdoses has gone down, pointing to headway.
The United States has an overdose death rate of 19 people per 100,000 people. West Virginia remains in crisis with 190 overdose deaths per 100,000. Alachua County remains on the lower end of the spectrum with 12 deaths per 100,000.
Other good news, Mathias said, is that, while overdose remains the number one cause of death for ages 18 to 45, the adolescent population is the healthiest when it comes to overdoses.
In Alachua County, the Newberry Opioid Task Force brought the national program radKIDS into the public school system.
Mathias said a lot of mysteries remain when it comes to addiction, but he said people need to start looking at it as a treatable disease. If you do, he said some numbers remain encouraging. He said outcome rates for patients seeking treatment with addiction are above those for treatment like high blood pressure or diabetes.
“It's just trying to change that narrative as a society that ‘this is a futile thing’ and 'no one's gonna get better’ because we know that's not true,” Mathias said.
Tim Chistensen stood as a testament to that. He works at the Florida Recovery Center, a part of UF Health, as a clinical social worker, but in 2007, he stayed as a patient.
“It saved my life,” Chistensen said. “I’m very grateful to be able to work there now and to help other patients be the best version of themselves that they can be with recovery.”