Allegheny County health officials work to get Narcan to first responders
Allegheny County's opioid crisis is showing no signs of slowing, but health department officials say the process of getting the overdose-reversal drug naloxone into the hands of first responders continues to be a slow and arduous one.
“We're at the point where we're calling all of them to find out if they're carrying (naloxone) or not, and if not, do they want to carry,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department.
There are more than 100 municipal police departments across Allegheny County, and about 50 fire departments are “quick-response service certified” to provide medical treatment. There is no comprehensive list that identifies which departments carry naloxone, often referred to by its brand name Narcan.
The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs keeps a list of police departments that self-report carrying the drug and reports that 68 of the county's departments do, but Hacker said she and other health officials are finding that the state department's list is incomplete. The state has acknowledged as much.
“We definitely know some police departments, for example, got their supply from local hospitals and didn't necessarily report that to the state,” Hacker said.
What health officials do know: Narcan saves lives.
As of Nov. 1, Narcan helped municipal police across Pennsylvania reverse 5,859 overdoses, including 618 in Allegheny County, according to the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. State police used Narcan to reverse another 121 overdoses.
In addition to trying to identify which police and fire departments aren't carrying Narcan, Allegheny County Health Department Deputy Director Abby Wilson said her department is working to learn where the most doses are being administered.
“It's been a process,” she said.
Overdose Free PA keeps records of overdose deaths by ZIP code. So far in 2017, the 15212 ZIP code — which includes part of Pittsburgh's North Side — has had 33 deaths, the most in Allegheny County.
The second-highest total — 28 — was in the 15136 ZIP code, which includes McKees Rocks, Robinson, Kennedy and Stowe. None of those municipal police departments carried Narcan, though Kennedy was in the process of completing training to use Narcan as of mid-December.
Supervisors in McKees Rocks and Robinson said their respective municipalities have ambulance services that respond to all calls, negating the need for officers to carry Narcan.
Police chiefs elsewhere have been similarly reluctant to have their officers carry Narcan because they felt it wasn't the responsibility of the officers to get involved in such a way, Hacker said.
“There's now a question of who is the first one to the scene,” she said. “It turns out that it is not consistent.”
Smaller departments have cited financial concerns, but Hacker said she hopes a recent grant will help alleviate some of that pressure.
The cost of the overdose antidote has skyrocketed in the wake of the opioid crisis. The price of Evzio, an auto-injector, costs about $4,500 — nearly 700 percent more than it cost three years ago, according to the Washington Post. The generic injectable version costs about $150 per dose, and a nasal spray version costs about $125 for two doses.
Allegheny County received a state grant last month that provided 88 boxes of Narcan — or more than 1,000 doses — for distribution.
“We're trying to encourage them, especially now that we can provide them with the naloxone,” Hacker said.
The county is on pace to surpass last year's overdose death total of 650. As of late December, the medical examiner's office had reported 591 deaths. The number figures to be much higher, as it typically takes six to eight weeks to receive results from toxicology testing.
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.