Gov. Rick Scott is directing state health and law enforcement agencies to travel the state in search of solutions to the opioid epidemic, but the governor has not taken the extra step to declare a statewide public health emergency.
Florida's Department of Health, Department of Children and Families and Department of Law Enforcement will in the coming weeks begin workshops in Palm Beach, Manatee, Duval and Orange counties. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi announced the initiative, a deal with drug companies to provide Narcan spray and their support for legislation related to the opioid crisis at an event in the state Capitol on Tuesday.
During previous public health crises, including the Zika virus outbreak last year and the 2014 ebola epidemic in West Africa, Scott declared public health emergencies in Florida. He declared one earlier Tuesday to address wildfires in the state.
An emergency declaration allows the governor to direct immediate spending to combat problems and allows public health officials to move quickly in response to a crisis.
"We're working through the Legislature, we're doing the workshops," Scott said Tuesday when asked why he hadn't done the same for the opioid crisis. "We're going to have these workshops and we're going to see if there's ideas that we can put forth that might have an impact. We're going to see what we can learn, but all of us have to understand that we all have to be involved with this."
The workshops are a "starting point," Scott said, and spokeswoman Jackie Schutz later made it clear that the governor is "not ruling out any options at this point."
Bondi, who was appointed to a presidential Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission by President Donald Trump, said emergency declarations are a good way to deal with short-term problems like Zika or a hurricane but that they don't make sense for large-scale, long-term, national crises like the opioid epidemic.
In 2015, the last year for which data is available, opioids were the direct cause of death of 2,538 Floridians and contributed to an additional 1,358 deaths, according to FDLE data compiled by the Florida Behavioral Health Association.
Democrats, who in February asked the governor to declare a state of emergency, say they're confused by Scott's reluctance to declare a state of emergency. They note that it took just nine confirmed travel-related cases of Zika before Scott declared it a disaster in early 2016.
"This is a much more serious problem that requires immediate solutions," state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. "The state of emergency coalesces everybody behind the problem. I'm a little perplexed as to why we have thousands of deaths in the state of Florida and we're not creating a state of emergency but we have some wildfires that have caused zero deaths and yet that's a bigger issue."
Photo: Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi announce statewide workshops and a new deal with drug companies to combat the opioid epidemic Tuesday in the Florida Capitol. (Michael Auslen | Times/Herald)