The Unified Police Department announced Thursday that every patrol officer will now carry a dose of Narcan with them while they’re on duty.
Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, is an opiate antidote that helps people who have stopped breathing due to an opiate-related drug overdose start breathing again.
In Utah, the average number of people who fatally overdose on opiates per 100,000 residents is twice the national average, said Dr. Jennifer Plumb with the University of Utah. More people die in Utah from overdosing than those killed in car crashes or from gunshot wounds, she said.
“These are preventable deaths. These are deaths that do not have to happen,” Plumb said.
During a recent seminar on opiate abuse, Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill were so struck by the numbers that Gill decided he would provide Narcan for every Unified police patrol car in the force and pay for it by using assets seized during drug arrests and prosecutions.
“I cannot think of a better expenditure for our asset forfeiture money than to take drug money from crime and use it for saving the lives of drug addiction,” Gill said during a press conference Thursday alongside Winder and Plumb.
Fighting the current heroin epidemic is a community problem, he said. Gill wants to make sure that people who are addicted at least have a chance to get into treatment.
“Before you can get people into treatment, you have to make sure they can actually get there,” he said.
Because seconds matter when a person is not breathing, Winder said it makes sense for his officers to be equipped with a medicine that can help overdose victims breathe again.
Plumb equates it to someone who has been pulled out of a swimming pool who is not breathing. Police wouldn’t wait for paramedics to arrive before administering CPR.
In the case of opiate overdose, each dose of Narcan is good for about three to five minutes, she said. If two officers respond to a scene and each is carrying Narcan, “you potentially bought that person 10 minutes of oxygen, which after three minutes you start to lose brain cells,” she said.
Plumb disputes the idea that addicts will use Narcan as a kind of “parachute” to help them dive deeper into drug use.
“If I have a peanut allergy and I have an EpiPen, the first thing I’m not going to do when I go home is get a peanut butter sandwich,” she said. “If you’ve been on opiate substances and are dependent upon it, you get naloxone you feel terrible. You go immediately into withdrawal, which is what any opiate dependent person wants to avoid.
“So the thought that someone would say, ‘I’m just going to get a little bit higher, I’m going to take a little more of this substance because this Narcan will rescue me,’ is actually really counterintuitive,” she said.
Two-thirds of opiate-related deaths in Utah are due to prescription medications while one-third is from heroin use, Plumb said.
She noted that pill abuse affects a user’s entire family and not just the addict. Currently, Plumb said more than 80 percent of opiate overdoses treated at Primary Children’s Hospital are for children 5 years old and younger, meaning they are getting hold of someone else’s pills.
“The truth is opiate addiction is everywhere. It knows no economic barrier. It knows no class distinction. It knows no level of education,” Gill said.
Winder didn’t know how often his officers will use the Narcan nasal spray as his department has never kept such statistics. However, he said his officers typically respond to calls of an overdose or a person down several times a day.
Salt Lake police officers and firefighters are already carrying the antidote. Plumb said Salt Lake firefighters use about 800 doses of Narcan a year.
Already, other police departments in Utah have reported a total of 27 lives that have been saved in the past seven months because of Narcan, she said.
Furthermore, with cases of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — on the rise, Narcan could be used to help save a responding officer’s own life.
Unified police were provided with 150 boxes of Narcan for $75 per box. Each box contains two doses of the medication.
Plumb said some people have been known to get up and walk away without ever having to go to the hospital after receiving Narcan, while adding that an average admission into an intensive care unit can reach $30,000, while just an evaluation in the emergency room can be about $8,000.
In terms of both saving lives as well as getting an addict on the road to rehabilitation, Gill believes providing Narcan for Unified police will provide a great return on the investment.