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Officials announce effort to equip police with life-saving drug

District Attorney Jack Whelan, Delaware County Council and Rep. Joe Hackett (R-Delaware) joined together at the office of the Delaware County medical examiner to pledge their support for legislation that would allow police officers in Pennsylvania to carry and administer naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opiate overdose and bring an unresponsive person back to life.

As more people become addicted to prescription painkillers, they turn to cheaper and readily available heroin. In just the past four weeks, Delaware County has had at least four heroin-related deaths. Since the start of 2014, there have been 12 heroin-related deaths. Officials and police chiefs believe putting naloxone in the hands of law enforcement could reverse the startling number of heroin-related deaths that has reached epidemic proportions in Delaware County.

Pennsylvania state law currently prohibits unauthorized individuals from administering prescription drugs.  Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks) has proposed a bill that would provide statutory authority needed for police to administer naloxone.  In Pennsylvania, which has the nation's 14th-highest drug overdose mortality rate, only medical personnel are allowed to administer naloxone. 

Naloxone is an opiate antagonist that can reverse overdoses from heroin and opioid prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Opiates and opioids bind to the opiate receptors in the brainstem of the brain, blocking the central drive to breathe. Naloxone reverses this process. Naloxone can be injected directly or administered as a nasal spray.

Several states including Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey allow police to administer naloxone. As soon as legislation in Pennsylvania is passed, county officials want to equip all municipal police vehicles with nasal naloxone. When help is called, police officers are often first to arrive at the scene, and experts say those early minutes can be the key to saving a life. Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan believes naloxone could make a life-saving difference in those moments. He is calling for this legislation to be fast tracked and is also exploring the possibility of a pilot program in Delaware County through the Department of Health so police officers can nasally administer naloxone.

“By equipping police officers with nasal naloxone, we will effectively be able to bring people back to life,” said District Attorney Jack Whelan. “Police officers need every life-saving tool available so they can continue to protect and serve the community. Anything that we can lawfully do to save someone's life is something we need to look at doing," he said.

According to Rep. Joe Hackett (R-Delaware), who is a co-sponsor of the bill, police would be protected under this piece of legislation and receive civil immunity when administering the drug. “This bill is just another tool to assist law enforcement and first responders in saving lives and protecting the community from the opioid epidemic occurring across the Commonwealth,” Hackett said.

One city that has extensive experience with naloxone is Quincy, Mass., a suburb of Boston with a population of just under 100,000. Police in Quincy, Mass., have been carrying naloxone nasal spray since October 2010 and have administered the drug 221 times, reversing 211 overdoses.

Less than two years ago the Delaware County Medical Examiner, Dr. Fredric Hellman, reported he was seeing an alarming number of heroin-related deaths – 52 fatalities in total for the year 2012 as compared to 19 heroin fatalities in 2007. In 2013, there were 52 heroin-related fatalities.

“The number of heroin-related deaths we’ve seen recently in Delaware County has been, unfortunately, amazingly consistent,” said Dr. Hellman.  “Over the past three years we have had between 50-60 heroin-related deaths per year. Anything we can responsibly do to disrupt this pattern must be tried. Naloxone has been proven to be a pretty safe drug and can be a life-saver when used by first responders treating an opioid and opiate overdose.”

To address the heroin epidemic, Delaware County Council partnered with the District Attorney’s Office in September, 2012 to form the Heroin Task Force with the mission to reduce the number of heroin-related deaths. Members of the Task Force represent government, law enforcement, the business community, treatment providers, parents and educators. Over the past 20 months, the task force has launched an awareness campaign for parents and students, installed 11 permanent medicine drop boxes at police stations collecting over 1,000 pounds of drugs, and is now looking at how they can get naloxone into the hands of law enforcement.

“Many people in the medical community and on the front lines of emergency response believe that naloxone saves lives. I believe that if we can save one life, it’s worth the effort, and we need to get this life-saving drug into the hands of the people who arrive on the scene of an overdose,” said Delaware County Council Chairman Thomas McGarrigle.

Both Delaware County medical examiner Fredric Hellman and Delaware County Senior Medical Advisor Dr. George Avetian, who serve on the Heroin Task Force, believe naloxone could increase someone’s chances of surviving an overdose. 

“Naloxone has been around for a long time, and is regarded within the medical community as highly effective when used properly,” said Dr. Avetian. “Within minutes it can reverse the effects of an overdose and save a life.”

The American Medical Association (AMA) supports the use of nasal naloxone by medical first responders and trained non-medical personnel for the life-saving reversal of opioid overdose. In a resolution, the AMA calls for the use of nasal naloxone in the reversal of opioid overdose and advocates for the routine prescription of nasal naloxone to all patients at risk for opioid overdose.

The bill proposed by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, will require the Department of Health to make these changes to the scope of practice provisions no later than December 31, 2014.