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OD antidote not catching on with many Westmoreland police departments

| Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, 10:45 p.m.

Police officers in the region have used an opioid antidote to save at least a dozen lives since October, but only 18 percent of municipal departments in the state are carrying the medication that in minutes can revive a person who has overdosed.

Some police agencies say they aren't equipping officers with naloxone, known as Narcan, because of the cost, the need for training, liability issues and quick ambulance response times.

“Folks come up with solutions, but they haven't thought of the problems that come with them,” Penn Township police Chief John Otto said.

Pennsylvania had 1,117 municipal police departments in 2008, according to the most recent census conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Of those, 82 percent are not equipped with Narcan, and 72 percent of those don't plan to carry the antidote within the next three months, according to The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a research agency for the state Legislature.

The 4,300 troopers in the Pennsylvania State Police are required to carry the drug under legislation signed in October that permits police officers to use it. Municipal departments can decide for themselves whether their officers will carry it.

Anyone who responds to or reports an overdose is immune from prosecution under the legislation.

The fast-acting antidote reverses the effects of heroin and other opioids. Injected intravenously, into a muscle or sprayed into the nose, it acts within two to five minutes.

Otto hasn't ruled out equipping his department with naloxone. But he said officers have concerns about liability, cost and training. The cost may be the biggest issue, he said.

“You tell cops they're going to use it, and then nobody wants to fund it,” Otto said. “When you have tight funding, you have to prioritize.”

Some departments have received donations or grants to help them buy naloxone. District attorneys in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties have started programs to put the antidote into the hands of more municipal officers through a grant to the state district attorneys association.

“On many occasions, the police officer is actually the first person to arrive when a person has overdosed,” Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said.

He has encouraged police departments to request the antidote to help protect the communities they patrol. But few departments have taken interest so far, Peck said.

Westmoreland County Park Police and a few other municipal officers are carrying the antidote. In December, the sheriff's department received donated antidote doses for deputies to carry. County jail officials want to stock it.

At an upcoming meeting, Peck plans to encourage the others to apply through his office to obtain naloxone kits.

“Can there be any more important duty of a police officer to save ... a person's life?” Peck said.

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director for Aliquippa-based Gateway Rehab, said that while he understands police officers' hesitation, naloxone can only help the situation.

“In fairness, there is a learning curve,” Capretto said. “They (police) feel like there's a lot of things put on them already, but this will help save lives.”

“What is the difference between me using Narcan or an AED to revive someone from a heart attack?” said Donora Chief James Brice, referring to automated external defibrillators. “I couldn't live with myself if I stood there and watched somebody die, and I couldn't help them.”

Pennsylvania had 2,488 drug-related deaths in 2014, according to the state coroners association. Of those, 303 occurred in Allegheny County, 87 in Westmoreland County and 33 in Washington County.

Statistics in Westmoreland indicate the 2015 numbers may set a record for the third consecutive year. Overdose deaths were up 47 percent from last year through June 30, according to Coroner Ken Bacha.

Despite the alarming statistics, some police chiefs, including Washington city Chief Chris Luppino, say they don't see a need for officers to carry Narcan.

“We've never had an overdose where somebody died because of a lack of response time from Emergency Management Services,” Luppino said. “We think it's more suitable for a rural department with longer response times.”

Organizations representing police departments have mixed opinions. The Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association “strongly supports” the use of Narcan, while Executive Director Dane Merryman of the state Fraternal Order of Police hasn't taken a position.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, said all police officers should carry naloxone. He believes police opposition may stem from a long-standing stigma regarding drug addicts.

“There's a feeling from some departments — not all — that (drug addicts) got themselves in this pickle, let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “I think the people that are opposed to this are swimming upstream, to tell you the truth.”

Yaw said Narcan has saved 50 lives in Delaware County since state troopers started carrying it.

Even supporters have concerns. Greensburg police Chief Walter J. “Wally” Lyons, whose department will receive training on administering the drug, said that while it may save lives, it won't reduce the number of addicts.

“This is just an aftereffect,” he said. “I think it will have zero impact on the epidemic.”

Otto said the antidote is one tool that police can use in the widespread and complex drug epidemic, but it's not a solution.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Narcan is a very quick Band-Aid to the problem,” he said.

Matt Faye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Staff writer Renatta Signorini contributed.

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