As the long, isolating days of the pandemic bled into the summer, Brian Vineyard spent his time watching movies with his mother and hanging with friends in New Port Richey. A long-time carnival employee, he was out of work as amusement parks had shut down.
In his wallet, 38-year-old Vineyard carried old employee ID badges, including one dating to 2012. He also stashed a picture of his ex-girlfriend of five years and the Shepherd, Jax, they adopted. It had been about a year since the couple split. Despite the stressors that came with the pandemic, Vineyard seemed to keep his head up, said his mother, Paula Taylor.
But all was not well.
Around 2019, Vineyard had begun using fentanyl, she said. He told his mother he took the drug because of chronic physical pain from a drive-by shooting in 2004 that left him with a bullet in his back.
“That was his excuse to me,” said Taylor, 62. “He was always in pain.”
On June 29, 2020, he overdosed from a combination of drugs, including fentanyl. He became one of 282 Pasco County residents to die of an overdose in 2020, the deadliest year in over a decade.
As the pandemic tore through both the nation and Florida, drug and alcohol use has been on the rise. With it, a surge in overdoses.
“Part of recovery is reconnecting with others and becoming a part of society again,” said Dianne Clarke, CEO of Operation PAR Inc., a network of substance abuse and mental health treatment and prevention centers serving seven counties along the West Coast of Florida. “So here in the last year, we’ve had to isolate, which is exactly the opposite of what recovery needs.”
More than 93,000 Americans died of drug overdoses during 2020, a nearly 30 percent spike from the previous year, according to federal data.
More than 7,400 Floridians died of drug overdoses in the yearlong period ending in November, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A year earlier, the state had reported more than 5,400 deaths — a roughly 37 percent increase from 2019 to 2020.
Tampa Bay was no exception to the trend. Pinellas County saw 524 deaths, a roughly 31 percent increase from the previous year and a record high since 2009. Hillsborough County’s preliminary data reported 538 overdose deaths, a nearly 74 percent rise year-over-year. Pasco County’s 282 overdose deaths from prescription drugs, illicit drugs or a combination of the two was about 48 percent higher compared to 2019.
The increase, experts and advocates said, was driven by a deadly combination of isolation, mental health issues and unemployment during the pandemic. It was made worse by the availability of fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid. And in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, it was exacerbated by racial disparities and financial barriers to treatment.
For 60-year-old Terry Thompson, a 2019 car accident was his tipping point. But the isolation of the pandemic the following year didn’t help.
Thompson was well-loved in St. Petersburg, known there as “The Camera Man.” He could sometimes be found with five or six Polaroid cameras around his neck. He spent much of his life in the city, known for his smooth-talking and humor.
Thompson had been in recovery from an addiction to crack cocaine, but his daughter said he became addicted to Dilaudid, a powerful opioid prescribed following his car crash.
“It just ate my dad alive,” said his 34-year-old daughter Terri Riley. “And he was trying his hardest to get off of it.”
The pandemic made things worse, she said.
“He has nothing to do, nowhere to go,” Riley said. “But what can he do? He can take his medication, you know, he can do it all the time.”
On June 1, 2020, Thompson died of complications of an overdose from a deadly combination of drugs, including opiates, according to medical examiner’s records.
On top of the isolation that led many to turn to drugs and alcohol, options for recovery morphed into conference calls and Zoom meetings, said the Rev. Basha P. Jordan Jr. of Hope Alive Outreach in St. Petersburg.
“That has become a new way of recovery for many individuals,” he said. “However, there are many who don’t know about that.”
A recovering addict himself, Jordan started Hope Alive Outreach in 2015, moving his ministry from Baltimore. He sees compounding issues such as homelessness, unemployment and mental health as underlying causes of the drug epidemic.
In 2020, white Floridians made up 73 percent of overdose deaths, according to data from Florida-based nonprofit Project Opioid. Statewide, white Floridians compose about 53 percent of the population.
Black Floridians were 10 percent of 2020 overdose deaths, up slightly from 8 percent of overdose deaths in 2019. Hispanic Floridians made up 16 percent of overdose deaths in both years, according to the Project Opioid report.
However, the report found that Black and Hispanic Floridians were hit hard during the height of the pandemic. Overdose deaths among Black people increased 110 percent from March to June 2020 compared to the same time period the previous year. Deaths among Hispanics increased 67 percent, while white Floridians saw a 52 percent increase in deaths during lockdowns, compared to the same time period in 2019.
The New York Times found that Black Americans were especially impacted by the declining pandemic economy, too — facing long-standing barriers to educational opportunities and discrimination in hiring. And following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, depression and anxiety spiked among Black Americans, according to a Washington Post story that analyzed census data.
“Until we address racism in America, the problem is going to continue to escalate,” said Jordan, who sees inequalities in employment and mental health as contributing to overdose disparities.
A lack of financial resources can make it difficult for those struggling with addiction to seek recovery.
Robert Palmisano of Palm Harbor knows firsthand. In January 2020, the now 37-year-old overdosed on $3 worth of fentanyl after being sober for 13 years. He woke up in an ambulance with a sheet over his face, after paramedics gave him four doses of Narcan, a drug used to treat overdoses in an emergency.
When Palmisano started treatment, his first appointment cost $350 out of pocket, even though he had insurance. Now, he said he has monthly appointments with a doctor specializing in addiction treatment, costing $100 each. Palmisano sometimes spreads out payment over the course of the month. He also takes Subutex, a medication to help manage his addiction. Palmisano said he requests partial refills when he can’t afford to pay the full $120 upfront.
“The fact that it’s easier to go out and find the drug than it is to go out and find treatment is probably a big part of the problem,” he said.
“Killing everybody that takes it”
Palmisano said fentanyl is fueling the increase in overdoses.
“It’s not controlled, when you get something on the streets,” he said. The drug is often cut with other substances, such as Advil, aspirin, vitamin B or Tylenol, Palmisano said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first wave of opioid overdose deaths began in the 1990s, as more doctors began prescribing opioids. The second wave took place in 2010, with an increase in heroin deaths. The latest wave of overdose deaths began in 2013, with a notable increase in fatalities involving fentanyl.
In 2020, fentanyl analogs — drugs similar in chemical nature to fentanyl — were involved in about 63 percent of overdose deaths in Hillsborough County, according to data from the medical examiner. Fentanyl and similar drugs were involved in 372 Pinellas County overdose deaths and 199 Pasco fatalities — or about 71 percent of overdose deaths in each county, medical examiner’s office data for the two counties shows.
Paula Taylor, whose son Brian Vineyard died of an overdose in June 2020, said she’d like to see more attention paid to fentanyl.
“This fentanyl is killing everybody that takes it,” she said.
When her son used it, he became a different person, Taylor said. He would try to hide it from her. But he would sweat “profusely,” his mother said, and strip down out of his clothes.
And the screaming, she said, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
Working for change
In May, the Tampa Bay Partnership launched Project Opioid Tampa Bay, with financial help from the Florida Blue Foundation. The initiative brings together business, faith and philanthropic leaders to address the opioid crisis.
Project director and former Florida Representative Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, said the organization plans to spend its first year studying the extent of the problem and determine what resources are available in the area.
“It’s not just an academic exercise,” Webb said. “It really is so that we can put together a strategic plan for the best way of proceeding.”
This year’s state budget also set aside at least $131 million for outreach and treatment, as well as tens of millions of dollars to treat other types of addiction.
Some of the state’s money comes from a settlement with McKinsey & Company. The firm advised drugmakers such as OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma on ways to increase sales. Florida got about $40 million in February from the company for its involvement in the drug crisis.
The state also could get anywhere from $280 million to $400 million from a bankruptcy plan filed by Purdue Pharma.
State senator Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, sponsored Senate Bill 1844, which advocated for a Commission on Mental Health and Substance Abuse to study resources available in Florida. It was eventually added on to Senate Bill 96, which was approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 29.
After the isolation of the past year, Rouson said he is optimistic.
“I think it’s going to get better, but we need to pay attention to it,” Rouson said. “We need to make people aware that it’s okay to ask for help.”
Whenever Vineyard was high, he would talk to his friends about God, his mother said. He had been pursuing a degree in ministry, and he wanted to use it to help others like him. Vineyard’s plan was to move to Atlanta, buy an apartment complex and convert it into a rehab center for families struggling with addiction.
Vineyard also had arranged to go to BayCare for treatment.
The night before he died, Vineyard and his mother watched a movie and ate dinner. During the pandemic, she said, they often ordered take out.
Taylor fell asleep in her chair.
At 3:30 a.m., Vineyard texted a friend. He told her he was scheduled to enter rehab later that morning.
When his mother woke up, it was daylight. She went to see if her son was in bed. He wasn’t. She found him on the kitchen floor.
“I felt him, and I knew he was gone,” Taylor said. “Three days before he died, he told a friend of his ‘Man, people are dropping like flies around here.’ And then he dropped.”
Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free, confidential 24/7 hotline that operates 365 days a year and provides information and referrals for treatment and support groups. The phone number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Narcotics Anonymous, a recovery support group, hosts meetings across Tampa Bay. Their website has a search feature where you can find the meeting closest to you.