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Sharing stories of hope to reduce opioid deaths in Tampa Bay

The LIVE Tampa Bay initiative was created to address the region’s opioid crisis. Step one: Reduce the stigma of addiction by sharing stories of loss, recovery and hope.
Jesse Schenker, CEO of Jesse Schenker Hospitality Group, gives the keynote address at Thursday's launch of LIVE Tampa Bay, a new initiative that aims to reduce opioid deaths in the region. The event took place at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park hotel.
Jesse Schenker, CEO of Jesse Schenker Hospitality Group, gives the keynote address at Thursday's launch of LIVE Tampa Bay, a new initiative that aims to reduce opioid deaths in the region. The event took place at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park hotel. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 24|Updated Mar. 25

ST. PETERSBURG — Two county commissioners. A Florida state representative. A retired sheriff’s lieutenant. An insurance CEO.

These are some of the community leaders who took the stage Thursday during the launch of an initiative to reduce opioid deaths. They shared stories of how substance use disorders and the opioid epidemic have affected their families and their lives.

LIVE Tampa Bay is supported by the Tampa Bay Partnership, with grant funding from the Florida Blue Foundation. The initiative’s goal is to bring community leaders from the health, business, government and nonprofit sectors together to reduce the region’s opioid overdose deaths by 2025. More than 300 people and regional leaders, from local politicians like St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch to sports executives like Tampa Bay Rays co-president Brian Auld, attended the launch at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park hotel.

“The opioid crisis has become such a huge issue for our country,” said GuideWell CEO Pat Geraghty, who oversees Florida Blue. “We’re feeling it across all sectors of our community, and therefore, bringing everybody’s hands together. No single entity can solve this alone.”

Related: Pinellas County drug overdoses likely climbed in 2021
Tampa police Chief Mary O'Connor sits in the audience and listens during Thursday's launch of LIVE Tampa Bay, a new initiative that hopes to reduce opioid deaths in the region. The event took place at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park hotel.
Tampa police Chief Mary O'Connor sits in the audience and listens during Thursday's launch of LIVE Tampa Bay, a new initiative that hopes to reduce opioid deaths in the region. The event took place at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park hotel. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

More than 1,500 people died of opioid overdoses in Tampa Bay in 2020, according to data from the state Department of Health. That’s an average of four deaths each day, a 50 percent increase from 2019.

Black communities have been disproportionately impacted, accounting for the largest increase in deaths since the pandemic began. Hispanic communities across the country have also seen jumps in overdose death rates.

“Many of the people that are dying now come from vulnerable communities,” said Andrae Bailey, who founded Project Opioid in Orlando in 2018, the original iteration of LIVE Tampa Bay. “These are communities that often don’t have access to mental health services, and where trust has been severed.”

Bailey said LIVE Tampa Bay’s goal is to make sure that everyone has access to treatment and support when they need it. He said increased funding is a huge piece of that. It’s also important to reduce the stigma of addiction, so those who need help will ask for it.

Related: Pinellas Commission approves $2 million to fight opioid fatalities

To work towards that goal, the coalition pledged to share stories of loss and grief, recovery and hope, to help people understand that substance use disorder is a disease, not a moral failing.

That’s why 13 people took turns at the microphone to share stories about how the opioid epidemic impacted them, while honoring state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who was presented with an award by the coalition for his work on tackling the epidemic.

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St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch sits in the audience and listens during Thursday's launch of LIVE Tampa Bay, a new initiative that hopes to reduce opioid deaths in the region. The event took place at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park hotel.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch sits in the audience and listens during Thursday's launch of LIVE Tampa Bay, a new initiative that hopes to reduce opioid deaths in the region. The event took place at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park hotel. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Among the speakers were Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman; Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard; state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa; former state lawmaker and LIVE Tampa Bay executive director Jennifer Webb; Serenity Village CEO Gary Hartfield, and retired Pinellas sheriff’s lieutenant Dan Zsido.

“I am a person in long-term recovery from alcohol and drug abuse,” Gerard said. “For me, that means 40 years without a drink and a drug. My life is better than I could have imagined. I no longer have to be afraid of being ‘found out’ or of dying of this disease as my father and two brothers did.

“I look forward to a time when all people can reach out for the support they need, to recover without the fear of being judged.”

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