First responders bracing for impact of opioid epidemic

First responders try to prepare for, prevent opioid epidemic

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- For years, we've reported about the opioid epidemic plaguing cities and towns across the country. While its effects and devastation were easy to ignore before, now the opioid epidemic is getting closer to home, and can no longer be ignored.

Ninety-one Americans die every single day due to an opioid overdose. Prescription drugs, and their cheaper alternative do not discriminate; they touch every neighborhood, every demographic, race, religion and gender.

So what can we do to prepare for and prevent the epidemic next door?

"You could absolutely have a legitimate problem; a back problem, migraines, whatever the case may be, and through an innocent means become addicted to this product,” explained Capt. Jim Hansard, of the Maumelle Police Department, of how opioid addiction usually begins: a prescription for pain turned deadly addiction. "It is so addictive, people end up getting addicted to it and when the prescriptions run out, they still need their fix."

According to the CDC, since 1999, the number of opioids prescribed in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled. In 2012, more than 255 million Americans were prescribed opioids. That's 81 prescriptions per 100 people. Realizing there was a problem, federal agencies started cracking down on doctors and pain clinics.

"With prescriptions being monitored by the DEA and the government, with the doctors under a lot of scrutiny, they move on to the heroin. That's where I think we see more of the deaths from,” said Officer Steve Moore, with the Little Rock Police, of why many are drawn to heroin.

With this sort of drug, addicts are constantly reaching for a better high. The FBI calls this "Chasing the Dragon" and even produced a documentary for teens, explaining how it works. To give their clients what they want, drug manufacturers are adding more dangerous chemicals to the mix, like fentanyl, an elephant tranquilizer that is 50-100 times more potent than morphine.

"You have fentanyl in the heroin, you don't always know what's in the heroin. Is it just pure heroin? Is it Fentanyl? Is it a combination of both? If you don't know where you're getting it, if you get it from somebody different, one time it may be a higher dose,” Officer Moore said, adding that users are taking a big chance.

That chance, some have argued, has been reduced by the mainstream use of a drug called naloxone, to reverse the overdose.

"You're talking about someone in the throes of an overdose, and you can enter a substance in to their body; they come out of it just like that. It is a miracle thing that we can employ,” Capt. Hansard explained of the appeal for addicts.

MEMs has utilized Narcan, a brand name of naloxone, for the last 30 years.

"Today we are probably seeing two Narcan administrations, whereas five years ago, it was maybe one a day,” Capt. Mack Hutchison, Quality Manager for MEMs.

While Narcan may be a miracle drug, it is not one that is standard in every department. After demand went through the roof, so did the cost. The decades-old drug is more than 20 times the cost is was just a few years ago. Little Rock police can't afford the drug for all of its officers.

"We are down officers, but we still have more officers we are going to have to outfit with that than any other agency around here,” Officer Moore said of their struggle.

Two years ago, naloxone was donated to Maumelle's officers. It has been used on six overdose patients there. When they run out, they're out. And when the product expires in a few months, they'll have ask for donations again.

Many first responders fear that naloxone is becoming a safety net, causing users to push the limit for that next high.

"We have gone to a few addresses on more than one occasion. We have dealt with individuals that have overdosed on more than one occasion also,” Officer Moore said.

Capt. Hansard and Capt. Hutchison said the same is true for their departments. The Department of Health and Human Services has promised more federal money to be used for naloxone and the prevention of addiction, but those effects have yet to be felt in Arkansas, where Capt. Hansard said, they’re doing the best with what they’ve got.

"There's no indication it is getting any better. It is unfortunately something we are all going to have to deal with; people, police, something everyone needs to keep in mind," Capt. Hansard said.

So what are first responders doing to brace for impact?

"We've got a program: Community Paramedicine that we are using currently to reach out to those people, if we have multiple responses to a patient, be it an overdose or just not taking their prescribed medicine correctly, that can offer them resources that they can get back on track,” Capt. Hutchison said of MEMS’ efforts.

Officer Moore with Little Rock Police said that with the rising violent crime rate, they're trying to address the issue while also being spread very thin.

"We are trying to track it, and I'm sure our narcotics detectives are trying to monitor and keep up with the heroin coming in. That's one of the keys there if we want to stop it from being sold. Cut that down as much as possible. If we can get Narcan, that will help with the overdoses," he said.

Maumelle police said they too are trying to be on the proactive side of this.

"We are trying to get the users and the dealers off the streets. If we fail in that, and somebody gets in to a situation where they are in the throes of an overdose, we want to be able to save them," they said.

There are things that we can do as members of the community. Lock up your drugs: be sure no one in the house, especially teens, have access to them. Look for the signs: a sudden loss of finances, needle marks, and pin point pupils. Advocate: ask your representatives to support funding for research, prevention, and naloxone in every police department.

© 2017 KTHV-TV


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