Overdoses in Volusia County drop after hospitals partner with treatment counselors

Counselors getting to addicts at their hospital bed

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Larry Brooks has spent the last 12 months racing to Halifax Health Daytona Beach, the hospital across the street from where he works at SMA Healthcare, trying to get to every addict that came in on a stretcher after overdosing.

But lately, the pace has slowed.

Brooks is a certified recovery peer specialist, uniquely qualified as a recovering addict himself to speak with the addicts, if they agree, and offer a second chance: a comprehensive treatment program at SMA.

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Overdoses in Volusia County were skyrocketing over the past year, largely due to the pandemic.

In 2020, 1,969 people overdosed in Volusia County and 305 people died, according to SMA.

This year is off to a much less grim start.

So far, in 2021, 581 people have overdosed and 81 have died. That’s a 20% reduction compared to last year’s pace.

Brooks, his employer SMA, and the partnership with Halifax Health are all helping reverse the rising overdose trend.

“I know that we are making a difference, but it is a real team effort with a lot of community partners,” Brooks said.

One year ago, SMA partnered with Halifax Health to allow recovery specialists, like Brooks, access to addicts at their hospital bedside, if the patients agree to talk. The idea is to get through to addicts during their most vulnerable time and offer them a chance at breaking the overdose cycle through medication-based treatment and counseling at SMA.

“People that come in with an overdose, they keep coming, it’s a revolving door,” Brooks said. “To have a face in there to say I’m here to help you, it makes all the difference in the world. They really are at the end of their rope. And the only thing that that person coming in with substance abuse disorder has is to use some more, to kill what they’re feeling. Because they feel like they have no hope. Which is why they keep doing it.”

Dr. Stephen Viel, Medical Director of Halifax Health Emergency Services, helped created the partnership. He understood that it was in the hospital’s best interest to get involved.

“We really had to make a change and realize that these are patients with a high risk of dying. If someone is in the emergency department and has a non-fatal overdose, the risk of dying in the next year is 1 in 10 to 1 in 20, really high rates,” Viel said. “A lot of them have burned through a lot of different social safety nets and social programs, and really had nothing on them and were being found on the street.”

Most addicts would receive photocopies of treatment and counseling resource paperwork before they walk out of the hospital doors, but that’s it. So they would go right back to using drugs and overdosing and end up at the hospital over and over again.

“There’s a human factor of treating people but there’s also a large economic factor for treating and intervening in a way that’s meaningful and cost-effective,” Viel said.

Brooks said SMA is also making sure recovering addicts have stable housing.

“The thing I always hear is yes I would love to get help, I’m grateful that you’re here, and what I hear right after that is what am I going to do tonight, I got no place to live,” Brooks said. “Your hierarchy, your needs. Without shelter, nothing else is going to matter. If I don’t have a place to live, to rest my head, I’m not going to worry about going to some doctor appointment or cancel our appointment. I’m going to worry about getting some food and putting a roof over my head.”

SMA said 93% of all addicts enrolled in treatment now have a place to stay, up from 88% last year.

And other treatment facilities, shelters and halfway houses are beginning to allow addicts on medication-assisted treatment to stay.

“And what I’ve seen in the past year-and-a-half that I’ve been doing this is a lot of your halfway houses and sober living homes, that up until now would never even consider taking on patients that are on a medication assisted treatment program, they’re allowing them to stay overnight,” Brook said.

SMA also discovered that recovering addicts were struggling to stay on a treatment program because they couldn’t get to treatment - they needed transportation. So SMA hired two drivers to take addicts to counseling, treatment and work.

“I talk to people when I first started this program, that were in that emergency room, there’s still here with us today, they’ve been reunited with their kids and families, they’ve got the stable jobs and driver’s licenses and cars and went back to work,” Brooks said. “I get excited for it. Because I look at that person and I say you know what your life might just be changing right now.”

SMA has now partnered with two hospitals in Volusia County and is in the process of partnering with a third in Flagler County.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.