Six months after President Donald Trump declared the nation’s opioid crisis a public health emergency, more local police officers are being equipped with a medicine credited with saving thousands of lives from opioid overdoses.
The Purcellville Police Department is the first town police force in Loudoun County to more actively combat opiate-related overdoses by equipping its officers with Naloxone, an emergency medication used to reverse the effects of heroin or prescription opioid drugs. The medication is often referred to by its brand name Narcan.
The town’s police department announced last month that its 16 officers have been trained to use and are now carrying Naloxone. The decision to carry the medication is in response to the national and local spread of opioid overdoses, which have included one death in Purcellville since 2015. Law enforcement leaders credit more officers armed with the medication to a decline in lives lost to overdoses.
From 2015 to 2016, deaths from opioid overdoses went up 46 percent in Loudoun County—and at the same rate across the state—from 13 to 19. But Loudoun has since seen a drop in the number of lives lost. Last year, the death toll dipped to 17, and four have died from overdoses so far this year.
“We’re seeing a continued decrease this year,” Sheriff Mike Chapman said. “We’re not going to be happy until we see that number down to zero.”
While nonfatal overdoses continue—36 reported in 2015, 69 in 2016, 63 last year and 15 already this year—Loudoun is the only jurisdiction in the Washington-Baltimore area to see a decline in opiate-related deaths, Chapman said.
He credits that in part to the sheriff’s office being one of the first law enforcement agencies in Virginia to equip its more than 230 patrol deputies with Naloxone. That decision was made in April 2016 as part of the formation of the Heroin Operations Team that was announced by Sheriff Chapman and U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10).
“Since we’ve introduced it in 2015, we’ve saved 21 lives,” Chapman said.
For more than 30 years the Loudoun Combined Fire and Rescue System has carried the intravenous and intramuscular forms of Naloxone. John Morgan, the fire and rescue system’s operational medical director, said the county’s 1,350 career and volunteer fire and rescue crews in recent years also began carrying the Narcan spray, since it’s quicker to use and avoids sharp needles.
According to Deputy Chief of EMS Jose Salazar, the intravenous and spray form of the medication was administered 240 times in 2017 and already 52 times this year.
“It seems that there is an increase in numbers [of potential overdose cases],” he said. “I think it’s prudent to make sure that we have it available as needed.”
The Purcellville Police Department is the latest to follow suit. As part of a program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the town’s officers are now equipped with the nasal spray form of the medication, as opposed to the more expensive intravenous and intramuscular alternatives that are administered with a needle.
Acting Purcellville Police Chief Joe Schroeck said the department has been eager to get their officers equipped with Narcan. “We have wanted to implement this program for months, but we had delays in grant funding, getting people certified to teach, and logistical issues to put on the training.”
The department’s training lasted about two hours and included a classroom discussion designed to educate officers on what Naloxone is, how it counters the effects of opioid overdoses and why they need to carry it. The other portion of their training involved hands-on practice. “We all have to demonstrate the usage of it,” Schroeck said. “The goal is to get all 16 [officers] trained.”
Although the town hasn’t seen many opiate-related overdoses recently, it has gone through rough patches in the past. About a year ago, officers responded to a car crash in which the driver and passenger were discovered to have overdosed on opioids. “It kind of varies in western Loudoun,” Schroeck said.
The nation as a whole, on the other hand, has been battered by the epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015. In 2016, about 42,000 people died from overdosing, raising the count by 27 percent in just a year’s time.
Just last week, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged more Americans to carry Naloxone, noting that a person dies from an opioid overdose every 12.5 minutes in the U.S. It was the nation’s first Surgeon General’s Advisory in 13 years.
Middleburg Police Chief A.J. Panebianco said his department is “exploring the possibilities” of equipping officers with Naloxone, and Sam Shenouda, Leesburg Police Department’s public information officer, said his department is also looking to do so “in the near future.”
According to John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, equipping Virginia’s police officers with Naloxone has become a common practice in the past couple years. He said that use of the medication is now more widespread than ever. “My sense is it’s prevalent everywhere,” Jones said. “It’s happening almost every day.”
Carrying Naloxone is about more than saving the lives of the general public, Schroeck said; it also protects officers. He referenceda drug bust in August where a Stafford County sheriff’s deputy was treated with the medication after being exposed to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine.
Nationally, the general view is that the more people who have access to Naloxone, the better. In October, Walgreens began stocking its more than 8,000 U.S. pharmacies with Narcan—the majority of them selling it over-the-counter. Loudoun residents can purchase a two-pack of 4mg Narcan spray bottles for $135.99 at any of the county’s eight Walgreens locations.
“I think to a large extent that’s helpful,” Loudoun Volunteer Rescue Squad Chief Tony Mino said.
Schroek said some people are opposed to law enforcement who are not medically trained carrying the emergency medicine, even when Virginia’s Good Samaritan Law protects those who report an overdose in good faith from being arrested.
But for him, Naloxone is another tool to protect the public.
“You’ve got to save life,” he said. “That’s part of our jobs.”