The program, which places nasal naloxone, or Narcan, in the hands of Seattle bike cops, has been used 10 times to treat opiod overdoses in just a few months.
Just one day after Seattle police bicycle officers used naloxone to stop an opioid overdose for the 10th time since spring, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was in town to hear about the program.
“The opioid epidemic is a full-blown, public-health crisis and one that we can’t ignore anymore,” said Murthy during a Tuesday afternoon news conference at Seattle Police headquarters.
Launched in March as one of the region’s multipronged efforts to address widespread abuse of heroin, prescription painkillers and other opioids, the program places nasal naloxone — also known by the brand name Narcan — in the hands of Seattle’s bike cops.
Naloxone blocks the body’s opiate receptors and can reverse the physical effects of a heroin or pharmaceutical-opioid overdose within minutes, according to the Police Department.
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“It literally snatches them back from the brink of death,” said Penny LeGate, who started The Marah Project after her 19-year-old daughter died of a heroin overdose in 2012. The Marah Project is providing money for the naloxone program.
While police officers cannot force people to want to address their addictions, the reprieve offered by naloxone may “give them the opportunity to change their own lives,” said Seattle Safety Officer Steve Redmond.
Since starting to carry Narcan, Seattle officers have administered the drug to 10 people who had overdosed.
The use of naloxone by police and first responders is not new. But SPD is the first law-enforcement agency in the nation to use it in collaboration with scientists studying the effectiveness of the drug on the long-term health and prognosis for overdose victims.
Officers are providing information about their use of naloxone to researchers at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, police said.
The surgeon general’s visit to areas hit by the opioid epidemic is part of a national campaign called Turn the Tide RX, which is based on the concept of “prescribers talking to prescribers” and is aimed at educating prescribers about the epidemic.
Murthy’s visit comes as local, state and federal officials across the country grapple with ways to combat what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls an epidemic of opioid use and abuse.
Among the efforts proposed to combat the pandemic: Local officials are debating the establishment of a safe-use site in Seattle. Snohomish County put a measure on Tuesday’s primary ballot to raise taxes to pay for more sheriff’s deputies and potentially new treatment centers and social workers. The measure was narrowly losing.
In an attempt to encourage drug users to report overdoses, Washington state has also passed a law granting immunity from criminal prosecution for drug possession to anyone seeking emergency medical care for themselves or someone else experiencing an overdose.
According to the CDC, the new wave of heroin and opioid abuse affects people from all demographics, making opioid overdoses the leading cause of accidental death in the country.
Opioids include heroin, which caused 10,574 overdose deaths in 2014, and prescription painkillers, which were linked to 18,893 deaths that same year, the CDC reports.
In the Seattle area alone, heroin deaths spiked by 58 percent in 2014 and continue to climb, according to the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said that, on average, officers over the previous year responded to about 100 overdose-related aid calls each month.
Part of the surge in heroin use followed the efforts of several states, including Washington, to pass laws meant to curb use of prescription painkillers and make them harder to obtain. As a result, former pill users turned to heroin because it was cheaper and easier to get, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Seattle Police said its most recent use of naloxone occurred Monday evening, when officers responded to a 911 report of a woman who had possibly overdosed in the 900 block of Pine Street.
When they arrived, they found a 21-year-old old woman who was unconscious, did not appear to be breathing and had only a faint heart rate, police said.
Based on her symptoms and the hypodermic needles next to her, the officers believed she had overdosed on heroin, and they administered the naloxone, police said.
About four minutes later, police said the woman was talking in complete sentences to Seattle Fire Department medics, who took her to Harborview Medical Center.
Murthy said there is not one single solution to the epidemic but rather a number.
In addition to programs like the one being tested here, Murthy said there will have to be changes in society’s attitude toward addiction.
“For too many people in America, addiction is a character flaw or a moral failing, but that’s not the case,” said Murthy, shortly before joining bicycle officers on a ride through the city’s streets.
“We have to help people see addiction for what it is, which is a chronic illness of the brain that we have to treat with the same urgency, compassion and skill that we would treat diabetes or heart disease.
“That shift,” Murthy said, “is going to take all of us.”