Saint Leo University served as the host site on November 21 for the second meeting of the Statewide Task Force on Opioid Abuse, which was created by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in April 2019. The 21-member task force, chaired by Attorney General Ashley Moody, was created by the governor in the wake of Florida's opioid epidemic in order to create a coordinated and comprehensive strategy for statewide drug control and substance abuse prevention.

"We're grateful to Pasco County, and this is Saint Leo University where we are holding this meeting today," Moody said at the beginning of the meeting, held in the Student Community Center boardrooms. "Many of you may know that Pasco County has really suffered the effects of the opioid epidemic. It is fitting that the second meeting, our first one outside of Tallahassee, be held here in Pasco County."

Members of the task force include mental health experts, law enforcement officers, legislators, a state attorney and public defender, as well as experts in the fields of addiction, education, and social services.

The meeting aired live on The Florida Channel and the recording may be found at

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office served as the host agency for the task force meeting, and Sheriff Chris Nocco welcomed everyone to Saint Leo University.

"Pasco County is one of the fastest growing counties, over 550,000 people, and we're continuously growing," Nocco said. "We appreciate the task force coming here so we can show what is going on. Our stars here, Saint Leo University, Dr. [Jeffrey D.] Senese [university president], this is a hidden treasure, and we appreciate, General, you and your staff coming here. We are very proud partners with them."

The university has an educational partnership with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, which was brokered by the university's Department of Criminal Justice, said Susan Kinsella, dean of the College of Education and Social Services. "Although we have always had internships and other connections with this office, this partnership will offer opportunities for all of our students not only in criminal justice but in social work, human services, political science, and other disciplines to learn about issues such as the opioid crisis and what Florida is doing about it," Kinsella said.


Nocco described how the opioid crisis has affected the rapidly growing county that is home to Saint Leo's University Campus. "From 2006 to 2015, 256 million dosage units of prescription pills were distributed in Pasco," the sheriff said. "2011 was our highest year. In that year, 21.9 million Oxys [oxycodone] were distributed. Last year, in 2018, there were 427 overdoses; 133 were fatal. In 2019, we're on pace; right now, we have 414 overdoses."

Pasco County's sheriff described the opioid crisis as a health care issue that law enforcement must deal with, "but we're getting a lot of wins now."

The sheriff's office has a mental health team that works with addicts and when a drug operation or drug house is "busted," while the distributors are arrested, help is offered to the drug addicts.

With the use of the Narcan (naloxone) nasal spray, the sheriff's office has been able to save more than 230 people in three years, who were overdosing on opioids, Nocco said.

But, "we continue to lose 15 people a day in Florida," Moody said. "And there has been a sharp increase in fentanyl deaths. It's a deadly trend."


The November 21 meeting at Saint Leo, focused on initial treatment. The Statewide Task Force on Opioid Abuse heard from Dr. Debra Barnett, who specializes in addiction psychiatry. Barnett advocated for the Medication for Addiction Treatment approach to dealing with opioid abuse. "It may take more than a psycho-social approach," she said. "It's similar to other chronic diseases, and there is a need for 

Barnett said long-term treatment is associated with positive outcomes, i.e., less deaths. "Longer treatment results in better outcomes, less recidivism, less criminal activity," she said.medication."

Dr. Aaron Wohl, medical director of Opioid Use Disorder Treatment Program, Department of Emergency Medicine, Lee Health Systems in Fort Myers, discussed the "warm handoff" approach his team uses for care of those who come into a hospital emergency room with issues related to opioid use that takes people from the ER to treatment in the community.

"It's not just the person who ODs," Wohl said. People who abuse drugs come in with infections, fevers, withdrawal, and heart valve problems. Like Barnett, Wohl advocated for treatment by medication, and for use of peer specialists to help get those who are addicted into long-term treatment.

"We are asking for more robust treatment in the community," Wohl said, "so we can hand off patients from the emergency department to treatment in the community."

The task force also heard from speakers representing the law enforcement and corrections communities.

For Saint Leo University, hosting the task force was a natural fit as the university has "an extremely robust, important, and really premiere program in criminal justice and emergency management," said Dr. Mary Spoto, vice president of Academic Affairs. "We believe very much in an applied learning model, so you will see students across the way studying in our Crime Scene House and taking advantage of our many internships. We are very, very committed to this work in educating the new wave of social service and legal professionals. We are very proud that you are here today as it is an important opportunity for our students. It is a testimony to the real and important work that is being done statewide to attack this terrible problem."

Attorney General Moody said she enjoyed having the students attend. "I was so inspired to see so many students pop their heads in and take part in our discussion," she said.

Information about the statewide efforts, how to get help, and other resources are available at