If Jacksonville had been hit by a hurricane that took over 400 lives, we know what would be happening.
The entire community would be mobilizing. No excuses would be accepted.
Yet Jacksonville is fighting a massive human crisis so terrible the city hasn’t seen anything close to it since the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
Here is what’s been going on:
• There has been a massive spike in the number of drug-related deaths in Duval County from 201 in 2015 to last year’s total of 464 (four times the number of murders committed in 2016).
• More than 300 deaths last year were either caused by or contributed to by fentanyl — an opioid far more powerful than even heroin — or its numerous synthetic versions.
• The number of drug overdose victims treated by Jacksonville Fire and Rescue has skyrocketed from 2,114 in 2015 to 3,411 last year.
• The number of overdose-related 911 calls to the fire and rescue department has tripled over a two-year period.
• City paramedics now treat an overdose patient every two hours on average — a few years ago, it was only once every six to eight hours.
• Paramedic use of naloxone — an antidote that can be administered to revive and save the lives of overdose victims — has increased fivefold.
• A local hospital reviewed its records on the number of patients treated for issues related to opioid abuse and discovered that medical personnel had revived one woman on 64 separate occasions for overdose, according to City Councilman Bill Gulliford, one of the few city leaders who has been bravely willing to do the heavy lifting to raise community alarm about this catastrophe.
“Who knows if that woman will survive the 65th time?” Gulliford recently said to a Times-Union editorial board member. “Or the 66th?”
So why has this crisis escaped more notice?
Perhaps because the deaths are happening out of sight of most of us, a few per day.
Then there is the stigma involved in substance abuse, even though this epidemic has touched every corner of Jacksonville from the poorest neighborhood to the wealthiest riverfront home.
There are echoes of the difficulties in tackling suicide in our city due to unwarranted shame of admitting to mental illness.
All of this is causing so much damage on so many levels that it is long past time for Jacksonville’s leaders to step up.
Leadership is overdue
A few years ago, city leaders dealt with blight by treating it like a citywide emergency. The same sort of team effort is needed for the opioid crisis.
It’s time for them to openly, boldly — and with the proper sense of urgency — address the opioid epidemic ravaging this community and its citizens.
Mayor Lenny Curry can do so by declaring the opioid crisis a city emergency — as Gov. Rick Scott did for the state — and then showing the same level of energy, focus and intensity toward tackling this issue that he’s admirably displayed in confronting so many of Jacksonville’s tough challenges.
City Council members can approve Gulliford’s proposal for the city to spend $1.4 million to support a six-month pilot program to provide specialized services to reduce the number of addicted and opioid-dependent people in our community through targeted treatment programs.
This initiative has already won backing from UF Health Jacksonville, local first responders, physicians, health providers and many other stakeholders.
There is more that can and must be done, including more support for first responders.
Too many lives are being lost.
Our leaders must act now.