Task force calls for wide distribution of Narcan

Overdose deaths continue to climb

GREENFIELD — When police arrive at the scene of a heroin or prescription pill overdose they have one option: try to keep the patient breathing until the EMTs or paramedics arrive.

Soon, Athol police hope to have a more proactive option in the form of a small syringe fitted with a nasal mist attachment.

Athol Police Chief Timothy Anderson plans to equip his officers with the opiate overdose antidote naloxone, making his department the first in the area to do so and a first step in a new paradigm the district attorney called for Friday, speaking at the latest meeting of the regional Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force.

“I want to say publicly I am for universal Narcan,” Northwest District Attorney David Sullivan said, using the overdose antidote’s brand name. Every police officer, every firefighter, every emergency medical responder and every family member of an opioid user should have access to and carry the overdose antidote, he said.

Sullivan told an assembly of about 75 task force members and visitors that the treatment and recovery resources the group is discussing become irrelevant if the people they hope to reach die.

“In the last 40 days in Hampshire and Franklin counties we have had nine suspected opiate-related deaths,” Sullivan said. That number has risen since Sullivan said Jan. 13 his office was aware of seven suspected opioid overdose deaths in the two counties in the preceding 30 days.

That opioid overdose death rate is triple the national and double the state rate, he said.

Dr. Ruth Potee compared carrying Narcan to the medical precautions parents take for children with severe allergies.

“It’s an EpiPen for addiction, that’s all it is,” Potee said.

Anderson has permission from the Athol Board of Selectmen for his officers to carry and administer the drug, and they would be the first in the area to do so.

“It’s fairly new, I think most police departments up to this point didn’t even realize it was an option,” Anderson said.

Narcan essentially elbows heroin or any other opium-based drug out of the opiate receptors in the brain, providing a quick antidote to a potentially deadly overdose.

The effect is that an overdose victim slowly suffocating as their lungs slow to a stop is brought abruptly back to sober consciousness. The interval depends on the method of administration. Medical professionals may inject the drug for the quickest result.

Anderson intended to train and supply his officers through a state pilot program that hands out the slower-acting nasal spray version, at no cost, following a brief training.

TapestryHealth’s Northampton and Holyoke Needle Exchange program is the nearest outlet for the Department of Public Health program.

The RECOVER Project in Greenfield will host a TapestryHealth Narcan training and distribution on Feb. 10 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in their 1 Osgood St. location.

It is not clear, however, that police departments are eligible to participate in this program.

Anne Roach, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, said there are communities participating in the program

“However, the DPH focuses on including higher incidence communities into this group,” Roach said. “There are other police forces such as Stoughton Police, Norwood Police that are starting to do this on their own and ... there are a number of different laws that allow that to happen.”

Doing it on their own includes paying for it on their own, Roach said.

Are there risks of wide public availability?

Narcan reportedly has no effect on a sober individual, no side-effects and no interactions with other drugs. If administered to someone overdosing on cocaine, methamphetamines, sleeping pills or any other non-opioid drug, it will not save them but neither will it hurt them. The drug is reportedly harmless, but the safety net may lead some to take greater risks with their lives in search of a high.

“We’re hearing stories about people intentionally overdosing on heroin ... knowing their buddy’s right there to spray them back to life,” said Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan.

Narcan isn’t miraculous: a single dose may be too little too late, the drug might have been weakened by improper storage or the user could slip back into an overdose when the drug wears off.

To Donelan, the possibility of abuse is frightening but wide availability of the antidote is worth the risk.

“The end result is it saves a life,” Donelan said.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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