Heroin continues to be a serious problem throughout the county. The Centers for Disease Control released data earlier this month that showed heroin use increasing among nearly every group – age, income, gender, etc. And according to the CDC’s report, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths heave nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013.
The White House announced earlier this month that it was determined to do something about this problem. It introduced the Heroin Response Strategy, which works to promote public health and public safety partnerships through a 15-state area. This new project aims to focus more on treating heroin addicts than on punishing them.
Now Missouri is not a part of this new project, though there are law enforcement officials in the state that are working toward the same goal – one such department is the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department that just this month started the first naloxone program in the state.
Pulaski County, Missouri, is located in the south-central part of the state. It’s a rural community of not much more than 52,000 people. But multiple sources said in a period of five years, the County saw 500 heroin-related overdoses and 50 overdose deaths.
As a response, the Sheriff’s Department began its naloxone program earlier this month. And Pulaski County State Representative Steve Lynch called it “A great day.”
“Today is a major step in allowing first responders to save lives of people who are struggling with the addiction of heroin and opiates,” Lynch said. “It’s an epidemic in our community, our state and our nation.”
This is the first such program in the state, as other areas with higher heroin-related overdose death rates have not yet adopted use of the drug.
Naloxone is better known by the brand name Narcan. It’s a drug that reverses overdoses from heroin or other opiate drugs. And according to law enforcement – like Pulaski County Sheriff Ron Long – it brings people back from virtually the dead.
Now, paramedics have been carrying naloxone in ambulances for decades, but it is a relatively new thing for police officers and sheriff’s deputies. In Missouri, it has only been legal for law enforcement to carry and administer for a little over a year.
It was actually concerned Pulaski County residents, and dedicated public servants - Sheriff Long and State Representative Steve Lynch - that pushed the issue and got the bill allowing first responders to use naloxone signed into law in July 2014.
Long is relieved the program is finally underway.
“You noticed me slump over a while ago like ‘Man it’s finally here.’ This has been long in the making,” Long said. “We, from day one to now, have spent one year and six months but it’s worth every bit of sweat, tears, which you saw earlier have gone into this program.”
He said it took so long to get the program going because there were several delays along the way including making sure they had proper policy, an adequate training program and a doctor to write the prescription for the naloxone and to oversee the program.
It was actually Captain Johnny Burgess who found a creative solution when they were having issues finding a doctor.
“I asked my personal physician to do it and he signed off on it,” Burgess said. “Happened to have a doctor’s appointment that day.”
When talking with other agencies that weren’t using naloxone, the same concerns were raised – cost, liability and the shelf-life of the drug.
So I asked Long, “Where cost's an issue?”
“Actually at this point - no. Because every penny we spent has been basically from donations. Most of it. A little bit out of my pocket.”
That’s right. The Sheriff himself chipped in money to get the program going. He said his belief in this program comes from his days as an undercover narcotics officer. He saw what heroin did to people and he wants to do his part – saving addicts’ lives and giving them the chance to even reach treatment.
“This thing is a lifesaver, and it’s a really great program,” Long said. “It’s very inexpensive. So why not?”
Long said the initial startup costs of the program were only about $1000.
As for the issue of liability, he said the Sheriff’s department covered their bases and wrote a policy that complies with the law. So, he’s not worried.
When asked about the shelf-life and longevity of the drug, Long said they found a solution for that too. The concerns here are that the drug will become less effective when left in a super-heated or far below freezing police car during officers’ shifts.
“Each patrolman has their own kit,” Long said. “Each patrolman has their own car. So in the evenings when they go home or the early morning, they take the kit inside of their home and they keep it basically at room temperature.”
And during the officers’ shifts the naloxone is stored in a kit – essentially a lunch box – alongside gloves, a breathing mask and two cool packs like what you would find in a school age child’s lunch.
Long said they already have naloxone in 15 of their patrol cars and they intend to have the naloxone kits in the rest of the fleet by the end of the year.
I asked the Sheriff what role he thinks police officers play in the health of their communities, he responded that they are a part of it. Perhaps not as important as others, but they are on the ground floor of public health and are interacting with the community every day.
Long also said the everyday officers in Pulaski County are excited about this new naloxone program - because now they can save lives.
“Where we're not actually out there fighting crime, putting people in jail, but we're actually helping save life’s,” Long said. “Which I think that's part of our mission too. Not just to put people in jail, not just to solve crimes, but also to save individuals lives and this Narcan program will do just that.”