TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) -- The Tucson Police Department is training officers to administer a medication that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses.
Naxolone, or Narcan, is a medication that can work within minutes or even seconds. Experts say it interferes with opioid receptors, blocking potentially deadly effects of drugs like heroin, oxycodone and other opioid prescription drugs.
Lieutenant James Scott with TPD says the agency began looking into the idea about six months to a year ago after seeing a rise in fentanyl use, and widespread drug overdoses on the East Coast.
"When we saw that, we knew that we had to do something before it happened," Scott said. "We didn't want to wait until it's too late."
Recently police in Ohio shared graphic photos of parents who reportedly passed out in a car after overdosing on heroin. The couple's young son appeared sitting in the backseat. Authorities report the parents were given several rounds of Narcan.
"It was an eye opener," Scott said. "I know there have been mixed emotions on it, but sometimes that's what it takes for somebody to actually see the real world, what's going on out there, to try to make change."
Training officers to use Narcan includes online courses, and Scott says that will soon transition into more hands-on, in-depth training. Officers will learn when to use it and how to use it. The goal is to give the medication to at least all of TPD's patrol officers, and those in the department who are more likely to encounter drugs. There are between 330 and 350 patrol officers with TPD, Scott said.
Even small amounts of fentanyl can be deadly, and it can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Scott says Narcan will not only protect officers if they inadvertently come across the drug, but they'll now have an extra tool to help people if they encounter overdoses while on patrol.
"We're in the job of public safety," Scott said. "If we can save a life out there by using this product, I mean why wouldn't we?"
Scott doesn't think officers will need to administer Narcan that often, as paramedics with the Tucson Fire Department are most often the first ones on scene.
So far in 2016, Captain Darin Wallentine says TFD has administered Narcan about 890 times. On average it is used between 1,000 and 1,200 times a year, Wallentine said.
"We go on a lot of overdose calls, but then again there's times when we could administer this medication to patients where there's mixed signs and symptoms," Wallentine said. "Sometimes when we go to patients that are in cardiac arrest, when we may not know what the reason is, we do administer this as one of things that could potentially be a postive outcome for the patient."
Narcan can be given through an injection, an IV, or nasal spray. The safest and easiest way is through the nose, Wallentine said.
Wallentine says there are no negative side effects when Narcan is used on someone not going through an overdose. If a user has been using illicit drugs for a long time, Wallentine says they could experience symptoms of withdrawal and can become nauseous, sweaty or agitated.
Drug overdoses may include obvious signs like drug paraphernalia including needles, and other symptoms pinpoint pupils, erratic breathing, and the user might be turning blue.
Tucson Fire spends about $35 dollars for each dose of Narcan. Wallentine says that when it comes paying for the medication it can be tricky. Some insurers cover the costs, and TFD's cost recovery program covers about 60% of the costs of Narcan.
TPD purchased 450 doses of the nasal spray. Scott says it cost roughly $17,000. The medication is good for about two or three years, but Scott says the agency will have to figure out if the heat will have an impact of the effectiveness of the drug. The department may look into grants to help with future costs.
Both Wallentine and Scott agree the benefits of Narcan largely outweigh the costs.
What happens after Narcan is administered? In terms of solving long-term issues with drug abuse, Scott says a greater emphasis is being put on education and public outreach.
Last week the Tucson City Council made a motion to draft an ordinance to crack down on Spice. While Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid and not an opioid, the ordinance should address issues of preventing drug abuse in our area.
According to statistics from the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, in 2015 379 people in Pima County died from overdoses. About 82% of those were accidential.
Drug overdose deaths have been steadily increasing, from 273 in 2010 10 379 in 2015.