Catherine Striley, a co-director of HealthStreet, gives a PowerPoint presentation on the dangers of opioid drugs to about 25 Gainesville residents on Wednesday evening ahead of a panel discussion live-viewing, hosted by the UF Health Community Engagement Center.

From more than 260 miles away, about 25 Gainesville residents watched and listened Wednesday as four Palm Beach panelists spoke about opioids in Florida.

HealthStreet, a UF community engagement center, hosted the live viewing at 6 p.m. as part of its Our Community, Our Health town hall event series, designed for community engagement on health issues.

The four panelists — Dr. Jim Hall, a senior epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University; Dr. Henry Young, a UF professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine; Dr. Jay Kuchera, an anesthesiologist who works in Port St. Lucie, Florida; and Kevin Twombly, a 911 operator in Martin County, Florida — spoke and answered questions from audience members at the town hall in Palm Beach County State College.

Catherine Striley, the co-director of HealthStreet and a UF assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology, said Wednesday’s town hall was particularly urgent.

“Fourteen people die of drug overdose in Florida every day,” she said. “We’re trying to reach people’s consciousness and understanding about the threat.”

Dr. Hall said that aside from being mixed to enhance commonly known illegal drugs, opioid drugs are also being sold as fake prescription drugs.

Hall said nine people in Pinellas County, Florida, died in 2016 from consuming strong opioids they thought were Xanax tablets.

“That’s what killed Prince, and it’s killed thousands of other people as well,” Hall said, referring to the legendary pop star who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016. “This is truly an epidemic of deaths.”

During the Q&A portion of the town hall, Twombly spoke of the danger of stigma around people who use these drugs.

Twombly said when he gets emergency calls while behind the desk as a 911 operator, he sees cases turn into death or overdose that could have been avoided.

People will call in an emergency, but be too afraid to say they overdosed over the phone for fear of facing criminal charges, he said.

“There may be someone in the bathroom with a needle next to them,” Twombly said. “They’ll often say, ‘I don’t know,’ when they do know what’s wrong.”

After the livestream ended, Marlena Massie thought of her friends and family.

Massie, a 36-year-old Gainesville resident and veterinary technician, came to the town hall to learn how to offer more help about opioids and possible solutions.

She said she personally knows people who take opioid prescriptions and face addiction.

“I want to help them,” Massie said. “They tell you there’s no problem, but you can tell.”

Gainesville resident Jerome Smith Jr. said he’s looking for more ways to reach out to the community.

Smith, a 37-year-old retired veteran who served from 1996 to 2002, came to the event as part of the Back on Track recovery group for veterans, a joint effort by HealthStreet and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Smith said although he’s currently unemployed, he’s using the group to find ways he can give back.

“We’re all here for a reason, right?” Smith said. “I’m trying to be a productive member of society.”

Staff Writer

David Hoffman is an investigative reporter for The Alligator. A rising UF history and economics senior, the 21-year-old lives and breathes for classy Parks and Recreation references and watching live performances of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on YouTube.