Montgomery County sees 138% rise in overdoses
District attorney encourages all police to carry Naloxone
NORRISTOWN >> Overdoses are up by an alarming rate across Montgomery County, according to data released by the District Attorney’s office.
Overdoses have increased 138 percent from last year, according to the released statistics.
Kate Delano, spokeswoman for the D.A.’s office, said that the increase was determined by comparing average overdoses per month in 2015 to the average per month in the first seven months of 2016.
“When you do the math, this year there are an average of 37 a month,” Delano said. “Last year it was 15.6. That’s an average of overdoses, not deaths — all overdoses from all drugs.”
So far in 2016, there have been 260 overdoses, resulting in 85 deaths, already surging ahead of the 71 overdose deaths in 2015. A majority are due to heroin or opioids.
“Our county’s overdose numbers are being released during National Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week as evidence that there is no community that is immune to this tragedy. It’s killing far too many people,” District Attorney Kevin Steele said.
The county has been working to address the epidemic on more than one front. Educational campaigns about the proper disposal of prescription drugs and county-sponsored collections aim to reduce opioid addiction that often begins with prescription pills.
The release from the district attorney focused on encouraging all county police departments to carry the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan. Steele said that not only can the drug protect civilians, but it can also protect officers who come in contact with the dangerous drug fentanyl that is on the rise as an additive or substitute for heroin.
“It is our goal to equip all 49 police departments with this life-saving drug to help protect the lives of our citizens,” Steele said. “Given the emergence of fentanyl, an officer or his K-9 partner could accidentally inhale fentanyl while securing drug evidence and go into respiratory distress, requiring immediate treatment with Naloxone.”
While 70 percent — or 33 out of 49 — of the county’s police departments are carrying the drug, Steele wants it to be ubiquitous.
Some police departments may find redundancy in carrying the drug, since it may be unlikely that they would arrive to the scene faster than paramedics carrying Naloxone. For the Pottstown Police Department, that was the reasoning at first, according to Capt. Robert Thomas. Eventually, though, he said the need became more obvious for the officers to carry the drug.
“It became obvious that there was going to be a need for it. Initially we were thinking along the lines of Goodwill (Ambulance) is always there but we reconsidered,” Thomas said. “Why wouldn’t we want to be capable, in case we get there before Goodwill?”
Since the department started carrying Naloxone in May, the officers have used it much more than he expected, he said.
“We’re using a lot more Naloxone than I thought we would,” Thomas said. “We have been using it weekly. Far and above what I anticipated.”
Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoos a physician who also serves as interim medical director of the Montgomery County Health Department, has been closely involved with the county’s battle against overdose.
“As a physician I understand very, very clearly what a difficult problem this is to treat. Addiction is absolutely one of the most difficult diseases to treat,” Arkoosh said. “My hope is that we can focus on prevention and intervention in a highly coordinated way across the county.”
She spearheaded an effort to get Naloxone into pharmacies and health clinics throughout the county. So far, 411 Naloxone kits have been distributed through pharmacies since October 2015 and 16 from county health clinics since June 2016. For more information about the naloxone locations and the county’s efforts, visit montcopa.org/overdoseprevention.
Arkoosh outlined some of the other actions being taken to contain the wildfire of overdoses. Increasing liability protections so that school nurses, staff members at community centers and others can safety administer Naloxone would broaden access to the drug.
She also said that making efforts to reform opioid prescribing by physicians and dentists can help prevent addiction before it starts.
“We need every prescriber in the county working together on this problem, we need the public, we need parents,” she said. “We need all hands on deck to fight this so that we don’t continue to create addicts. As we get people treatment, we need to intervene to stop more addicts from being created.”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, more than 320 municipal police departments in Pennsylvania were equipped with Naloxone as of May 2016, with Montgomery County ranking third in the state in Naloxone coverage.