Pandemic causes opioid overdoses to skyrocket in Volusia County

Drug counselors meeting overdose patients in hospital rooms

Larry Brooks, a peer recovery “specialist” at SMA Healthcare in Volusia County, is often the first person and the best person to speak with addicts who are lucky enough to make it to the hospital after they overdose on opioids.

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Larry Brooks, a peer recovery “specialist” at SMA Healthcare in Volusia County, is often the first person and the best person to speak with addicts who are lucky enough to make it to the hospital after they overdose on opioids.

What makes him a specialist?

“Someone who’s been where they’ve been,” Brooks said. “I’m a person in recovery myself and identify myself as that when I’m talking to the patients.”

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Brooks spends half of his days stationed inside the emergency department at Halifax Health in Daytona Beach, on call and ready to counsel patients who’ve overdosed.

“I’m trying to connect because the patients that come in there are at the absolute lowest point in their life. They’re either a death or near-death experience,” Brooks said. “And they’re coming in with no hope. They’re hopeless. And I’m there to try and instill some hope, that their life doesn’t have to continue on that path at the wrong.”

Brooks tries to break through to addicts who’ve lost control to their addictions to opioids and nearly lost their lives.

“They don’t respond until you know what they’re feeling, that’s the biggest part for me,” Brooks said. “I express how I felt when I was in those situations.”

All patients at the hospital with whom Brooks speaks must first agree to the counseling. Around half decline.

But those who do agree -- 158 people during the past 12 months -- Brooks talks to them about the hope that SMA, a substance abuse treatment center conveniently located across the street, offers: addiction medication, counseling and therapy.

That’s where Brooks spends the other half of his day, counseling, encouraging and assisting addicts.

According to SMA, 32% of emergency department overdose patients with whom Brooks or other peer recovery specialists make contact follow up at SMA for treatment.

SMA said typically only 10% of overdose patients will seek treatment.

During the past 12 months, only 7% of those patients who received treatment at SMA ended up back in the hospital.

SMA created the partnership with Halifax Health a year ago as opioid overdoses and deaths soared in Volusia County.

SMA said in 2019, 1,169 people overdosed and 145 people died, according to the Volusia County sheriff.

In 2020, 2,291 people overdosed and 299 people died, which is more than double the year before the pandemic.

“People having to stay home, they’re caught up in things that are going on in their lives, and all of that got intensified because of loss of jobs, children having to stay home, not being to go out and be a part of society,” Brooks said. “All of that intensifies feelings someone might already have. It didn’t surprise me that the numbers are skyrocketing like that and they’re going to keep growing as the numbers for 2021 suggest.”

As of last week, four people have already died in 2021 from overdoses in Volusia County.

“There was one point in November when we were getting three or four overdose consultations a day, and they were back-to-back-to-back,” Brooks said. “At one point there was a point where I had five consultation orders all come within an hour and a half. Five people overdosed. Those are just the ones who agree to talk to me.”

SMA said because of the success of the partnership with the hospital, SMA will now partner with two more hospitals, one in Flagler County and another in Volusia County. The move will put peer recovery specialists in those hospitals to meet with overdose patients as they come in.

Brooks said that in-hospital meeting is the “absolute best chance” of survival for the addicts.

“And it’s been identified that that is the biggest gap that we have: the emergency room,” Brooks said. “Because once they leave, you’ve lost your chance. The most important thing is we might have lost them.”

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.