‘Our family is forever changed’: Project Opioid Jax releases new data, launches awareness campaign

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Local families and leaders around the county are sounding the alarm about what many refer to as the “opioid epidemic.”

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Project Opioid JAX held a news conference on Wednesday, International Overdose Awareness Day. The focus was to remember the lives lost to overdoses and to educate people about the dangers of fake prescription medicine.

Project Opioid JAX is an initiative funded by the Florida Blue Foundation and facilitated through the JAX Chamber.

Steve Betz was at the event. He said addiction can be a reality in even the strongest of families, and it doesn’t discriminate.

“We’re a close family of six,” Betz said. “We believe in God. We go to church. We talk we laugh. We go on vacations. We spent holidays together. We had dinner at the kitchen table.”

His son, Tony, was 32 years old when he lost his life through an overdose. Tony left behind a son.

“Tony’s gone, and our family is forever changed,” Betz said.

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A report by Project Opioid Jax, titled “The Changing Overdose Crisis in JAX,” puts a spotlight on the realities of the issue locally. Between December 2020 and December 2021, there were 538 overdose deaths in Duval County. That’s a 3% increase from the previous year.

The report shows that 70% of those deaths in 2021 were caused by fentanyl. That’s an increase of more than 950% since 2015.

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On Wednesday, Community Coalition Alliance, Project Opioid JAX and the North Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) announced a social media campaign targeted at teens and young adults.

TJ Ward is the North Florida director of advocacy for Project Opioid Jax.

“This is the message we are promoting to the Gen Z population across social media platforms such as Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch,” Ward said.

The social media campaign, Anything But Obvious, is designed to raise awareness about the dangers of taking any medication outside of what has been directly prescribed.

“Why put your trust in something that you can’t verify?” Ward asked.

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The Shellers are also holding their memories tight. They lost their son last year. Maximilien was only 24.

“There’s a war on our children,” Rebecca Sheller said. “There’s a war on our country and when it comes to fentanyl, we really need to educate ourselves to save our families and save our children.”

Experts also want to fight the stigma attached to overdose.

“If you say no enough, people will stop asking,” John Sheller said. “Teach your kids to say no. Hopefully they will make it through, because it is an epidemic. We don’t need another loss.”

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Other key findings from the report include:

  • Opioid prescriptions are on the decline statewide, a 35% reduction from 2016 to 2020
  • In Duval County, opioid prescriptions are also down from 2016, but remain higher than the state and national average.
  • Of the 600 overdose deaths in Duval County, more than two-thirds of people had more than one drug in their system, according to the report.

“We miss him so much,” Betz said. “There’s no more phone calls. There’s no more bear hugs.”