Jamie Pierce met her best friend on the first day of seventh grade at Madeira Beach Middle School. Danielle Tobin was wild, adventurous and driven, she said. Pierce clicked with her immediately.
After high school, the pair moved in together while they worked and saved money. Their families were close and often spent holidays together. Pierce, 30, now has a 7-year-old son who also called Tobin his “best friend.”
Breaking the news of Tobin’s death to him was one of the hardest parts of losing her, Pierce said. Her son refuses to return to the restaurant where the family often visited Tobin at work.
In April 2022, Tobin died at 29 of a fentanyl overdose while struggling through a relapse.
“It’s funny, like, I was the pothead and was always late, and she always had her s--- together,” Pierce said. “Always had savings and was bailing me out.”
Under clear skies in Largo Central Park on Thursday evening, Pierce hung a photo of Tobin on a wall crowded with hundreds of other faces of people lost to overdoses in Pinellas County. At the annual candlelight vigil held by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education of Pinellas, or NOPE, a nonprofit that educates students about substance abuse, community members gathered to remember their loved ones.
Last year, 1,583 people died of drug-related deaths in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, more than double the fatalities compared to five years ago. Officials, addiction counselors and advocates say Tampa Bay’s numbers are alarming and worse than national and statewide figures.
Florida ranks second in the nation in drug overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state reported more than 7,800 deaths in 2021.
Last year, opioid overdose rates were down statewide by 2.6% from 2021, the first decline in four years, according to preliminary data from the federal agency.
But Tampa Bay counties are still seeing death tolls climb. Pasco County experienced a 13% increase in overdose deaths from 2021 to 2022. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties also bucked statewide trends and reported slight upticks in overdoses last year, said Jennifer Webb, a former state representative and the director of Live Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that works to reduce opioid deaths in the area.
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Pinellas County continues to have one of the highest overdose rates in the state, Webb said. The county had nearly 600 drug-related deaths last year, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s office.
Webb said decades of inadequate state funding is partly to blame for some Florida counties lagging behind.
“What happens when you don’t have enough money for 30 years is you don’t have enough workforce, because you’ve been underpaying your workforce for forever,” Webb said. “We are at a critical shortage when it comes to psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric nurses — all of that.”
But a recent influx of cash to local municipalities could bring much-need resources to counties across the state.
Florida began receiving its $3.2 billion in opioid settlement funds this summer. Pinellas County’s share accounts to $14.4 million this year, with $110 million more to be spread out over the next 18 years. County commissions across the state are responsible for distributing these funds — which were won in a legal battle last year against opioid manufacturers — to combat the ongoing epidemic.
Webb said community members who lost loved ones to overdoses should be at the center of discussions about how this “blood money” will be spent.
“People died for us to get this money,” she said.
In June, the Pinellas County Commission approved a priority list from its opioid funding advisory board on how to spend its first $1 million. This included proposals to expand medication-assisted treatment involving drugs like methadone combined with counseling, and expanding treatment for uninsured mothers with addiction.
Increased funding to community-based organizations, with an emphasis on long-term behavioral treatment, is likely to be the most beneficial to those struggling with addiction, Webb said.
“We honor people by showing up and sharing their stories at events like the one that’s being produced by NOPE tonight and the sheriff’s office,” she said. “But we also honor people by making sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure that not another family loses a loved one to the opioid crisis, and definitely involving their loved ones in the decision-making process is important.”
Edie Patrick, 38, showed up to the Largo vigil in a shirt that said, “F--k fentanyl dealers.” She lost her fiance in 2022 to an overdose.
“It’s been really hard,” Patrick said. “Our daughter was 6 months old when he died and he was in recovery and then relapsed. Then he took something that was laced with fentanyl.”
Three weeks before the vigil, a friend of Patrick’s died in the same manner. She said having a space for the community to get together has helped her grieve.
“Talking about them helps,” she said. “And just letting people know that it’s OK if you’re struggling.”