Lawmaker: Responders should carry drug that counteracts opiates
Quincy, Mass., Patrolman Sean Glennon and other officers trudged three crowded Boston blocks in November during the Red Sox World Series championship parade to save a woman overdosing on heroin.
Her boyfriend called police because he knew they carried naloxone — an antidote for overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin. They found the woman wedged in the corner of a bank entrance. She was blue, her breath shallow, pulse weakening.
The officers sprayed naloxone in her nostrils. Within two minutes, she was alert and ready to go to a hospital.
“It's pretty amazing to see a person struggling to get a breath, to see them dying,” said Glennon, who estimates he has used the drug about 10 times to save overdosing users. “Then, with two blasts up each nostril, they come back. That's generally all it takes.”
Police officers in Pennsylvania soon could join a nationwide trend to equip officers with naloxone to save lives as an epidemic of deaths from overdoses of heroin and other opiates spreads.
State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, plans to introduce legislation this month that would allow emergency responders and others who might come across overdosing addicts to obtain prescription naloxone. The bill contains a “Good Samaritan” provision, which would provide some immunity from criminal charges for people who call 911 to report an overdose.
“It's a substance abuse issue and a public health issue,” said Frankel, who worked on the bill with Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County. “It deals with illegal narcotics, but we're having an epidemic across this country. We need to save lives first. It's a matter of prioritizing.”
Quincy police became the country's first department to start a naloxone program in October 2010. In the 17 months before the program started, 47 people died from opiate overdoses in Quincy, about 10 miles south of Boston. In the 18 months after it started, 15 died.
“We reduced the death rate by 66 percent,” said Lt. Patrick Glynn, commander of the department's narcotic unit. “That's amazing.”
Naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, temporarily reverses the effects of opiates by blocking the drugs from binding with brain receptors. Its effects can last up to 90 minutes, providing time for medical treatment. Naloxone can be injected or given as a nasal spray. It costs less than $25 per dose.
Quincy officers have responded to 342 opiate overdose calls and administered naloxone 240 times, reversing 229 overdoses. In the 11 other cases, seven were already dead and two overdosed on drugs other than opiates, Glynn said.
Drug overdose deaths in Allegheny County have hovered for a decade above 200 cases a year. Most cases involve opiates, according to medical examiner office records. In 1990, fewer than 90 people died in the county of drug overdoses.
The Allegheny County Health Department plans to start tracking naloxone use by the more than 50 emergency medical service organizations operating here, said Director Karen Hacker. The data could help prevent deaths. Such data could have served as a warning before a batch of fentanyl-laced heroin killed about two dozen people in the region this year, she said.
“Unfortunately, with the recent episode, we found out because of the deaths,” said Hacker, who helped evaluate Quincy's grant program for naloxone when she worked at the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, Mass. “We'd like to do something before people die.”
Hacker said she supports Frankel's bill to clear legal hurdles for police and fire departments in Pennsylvania to carry naloxone.
“If the decision is made locally to do it, this sets the stage for that to happen,” Hacker said.
Law enforcement agencies in states including Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York have started or plan to start similar programs.
Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that provides health services to injection drug users, began prescribing naloxone in July 2005 through its needle exchange programs in Oakland and the Hill District.
In December, the organization received its 1,000th documented report of a client using the drug to reverse his or her overdose or someone else's, said Alice Bell, the group's overdose prevention project coordinator.
“You can't arrest your way out of this situation,” she said. “It doesn't solve this problem.”
Bell praised Frankel's bill for its third-party prescribing aspect and its immunity provision for those who report overdoses.
“People need to feel they can safely ask for help,” said Bell, who criticized a similar bill that the Senate passed last fall because it limited immunity to people who were the first to call 911.
Any Good Samaritan law without broad protections from criminal charges will fail, said Erich Curnow, a program specialist at the Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission.
“There should be no questions asked,” Curnow said. “It has to be very simple. If you want to save lives, you have to write the bill to save lives.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.