(Editor’s Note: The following represents the latest installment in an ongoing series diving into the issues associated with drug addiction across the lower shore.)
BERLIN — An officer with the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team walks swiftly up to Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Nate Passwaters driver’s side window at the Maryland State Police Barracks in Berlin to give an update on a heroin overdose call he had just returned from in northern Worcester County.
“He lived,” said the officer. “His buddy gave him Narcan, so by the time we got there he was awake, but he refused treatment and they flushed all the stuff.”
Passwaters shakes his head in a way that almost simultaneously expresses relief and frustration. He later admits that he gets news like this almost daily.
“He’s probably going to use again tonight, but at least he’s not dead today,” he said.
There is no-question that Naloxone, also known as Narcan Nasal Spray, is helping to save lives in the ongoing battle against the nation’s heroin epidemic, but even though it’s often referred to as an antidote to opiate overdoses, is it enabling addicts to push the limits of their own drug consumption?
Passwaters says a string of recent events like this one in the region seems to indicate that opiate addicts could be doing just that.
“It’s something that we are unfortunately seeing much more often,” said Passwaters. “Heroin users are keeping Narcan in the house while they use heroin or opiates as an added safety measure.”
From the perspective of a heroin user, having Narcan in the house before they take a hit is the equivalent to having a fire extinguisher handy just before you start playing with fire. Yet, Passwaters says the position of law enforcement officials is that they are unequivocally in favor of the presence of Narcan whenever possible.
“Bottom line is we don’t want people to overdose and die, so, while it is troubling that some people are pushing the envelope knowing that Narcan is there, we are glad that it’s there,” Passwaters said.
Narcan, which is usually administered via a nasal spray, essentially reverses the respiratory depression caused during an overdose as the Naloxone blocks the drug from a person’s opioid receptors.
It has exploded in popularity in the past few years as the total number of lives saved by the pharmaceutical that has been dubbed “the miraculous lifesaving remedy”. One other company, Amphastar Pharmeucuticals, manufactures the widely popular and easy to use nasal spray version of Narcan, but due to demand, the price of a Narcan kit has more than doubled. Worcester County Health Department officials say the Narcan kits they provide to county residents free of charge, thanks to federal grant funding, cost upwards of $90 a kit.
“The kits have two doses of Narcan in there,” said Kathy Stephanos, a nurse practitioner who oversees and administers Naloxone training for Worcester County, “but the cost has gone up dramatically in the past few years as demand for it has increased.”
Narcan is available in a growing number of pharmacies nationwide and throughout the local region. To get it, you must have a prescription or have gone through the certification process to administer it with the county.
“It’s about an hour-long class where we teach people how to administer the spray and how to identify an opiate overdose,” said Stephanos. “We really emphasize that people stay with the person who has overdosed once the Narcan has been administered, even after they are revived, because sometimes, they can slip back into unconsciousness before help arrives.”
While some may call Narcan a “life-saving remedy,” police and health officials hope that it’s also a “lifesaving maneuver”, or rather, a tool used to ultimately get someone into treatment.
“It’s our hope that if Narcan is used and saves a life, that we can quickly take the next step and get that person into long-term treatment,” said Stephanos. “It’s an unintended outcome that users are keeping Narcan handy so they can use more drugs, but they will never get better if they are dead, so having Narcan there is important.”
Stephanos says more than 70 law enforcement officials in the region have been trained to administer Narcan to individuals who may be overdosing.
“It buys us time, and in a life or death situation where every moment counts, it’s another tool that we have to use to save a life,” said Passwaters.
Stephanos says police officers from Pocomoke, Snow Hill, Berlin and Ocean Pines, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, and a dozen Assateague Island park rangers are already carrying Narcan in their proverbial “tool belts” and she expects those numbers to rise in the coming months.
“When we first started the Naloxone training a couple of years ago, there was not very much interest at all,” said Stephanos, “but now, as the number of opiate overdoses rises and we read about these things happening more often, more people want to learn and our classes are filling up.”
Currently, Naloxone certification classes occur twice a month at the Snow Hill Health Department and once a month at the Ocean Pines Library. For information, Stephanos encourages people to contact the Worcester County Health Department.
Heidi McNeeley, who is one of the lead organizers of the Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction, calls this “harsh reality” one of the difficult nuances in the battle against addiction, because even the proverbial antidote, can be an indirect enabler to a drug abuser.
“It’s so difficult and it’s such a gray and muddy area in this battle,” she said, “but there are so many gray areas in this battle, and if it were my kid, I would want Narcan given to him every time. You know, some addicts may use again even after they are brought back from an overdose, but hopefully, there will be that one time where they finally decide to get serious about getting clean. I believe communities battling this heroin epidemic need Narcan the way you need life preservers around bodies of water.”
The next meeting of the Worcester County Warriors Against Opiate Addiction is Thursday, July 21 at 6:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church of Ocean City on 13th Street.