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Pitt County Sheriff's Office deputies carrying drug to counteract opioid overdose

A disturbing national trend involving heroin use has made its way into eastern North Carolina. The Pitt County Sheriff’s Office has decided to take a proactive step that could save the lives of some opioid abusers. George Olsen has more.

What has happened nationally is happening locally as well. Recent years has seen a resurgence in the use of heroin in response to growing addiction levels with less-available and more-expensive prescription drugs. That trend became a reality in Pitt County in recent years.

  “ When people aren’t able to get the prescription pills they’ve become used to sometimes they turn to street drugs like heroin for example which can be cheaper and more accessible than prescription pills.”

Melissia Larson, the grants administrator for the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office. People addicted to expensive prescription drugs like oxycodone are now turning to heroin for its comparative availability and lower price. It’s brought a marked rise in the number of investigated cases involving heroin.

  “We looked at it over a 10 year trend. At the beginning of that trend we were having every year about 2-3 cases involving heroin. In the last 2-3 years we’re averaging about 30 cases every year involving heroin. Those are very alarming stats for us. It tells us the magnitude of the prescription pill problem.”

It’s prompted the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office to equip its deputies with a tool that could save lives if they come upon a case of an opioid overdose.

  “Deputies are commonly first responders on the scene for this type of call. Their priority is to provide scene security for EMS, so if they are first on scene and they give the go-ahead to EMS that the scene is safe, deputies are already standing there, and if they see someone in an overdose situation and they have the drug available, why not?”

The “drug available” Melissia Larson is referring to is Naloxone, which is now part of the standard equipage of Pitt County Sheriff’s Office patrol cars. The deputies have undergone training to recognize signs and symptoms of opioid overdose and have the authority to administer Naloxone in those cases. Deputies have had access to Naloxone also known at Narcan, which can counteract the effects of heroin and other opioids, for about two weeks now. The Pitt County Sheriff’s Office is the first law enforcement agency in the state to make Naloxone a standard accessory in their vehicles. Part of the impetus for making Naloxone available is the range of territory that Pitt County emergency officials have to cover.

  “Being we are in a rural community, EMS response time could be anywhere from 7-to-12-15 minutes. So you have a deputy standing there waiting for EMS to get to the patient’s side, so if he has Narcan as a tool in his tool belt, he can go ahead and deliver that Narcan to them. This is someone in respiratory distress, they’re not getting enough oxygen. It’s a dangerous situation for that patient so we want to help them if we can.”

It’s a low-risk treatment that deputies can provide. Melissia Larson says if a deputy misdiagnoses an unconscious person as overdosed on opioids and administers Naloxone it would have no effect on the person as, if it has no opioid receptors to block, it’s just basically there. In more direct vernacular…

“You can administer Narcan on me right now and its not going to have any effect on me.”

It’s also, at least initially, a low cost treatment that could prevent death.

“The Community Care Plan of Eastern Carolina actually provided all of the Narcan kits. They gave us over 120 kits for our law enforcement officers, and it’s only for law enforcement officers and our agents that will carry the Narcan, that’s patrol and SROs. It’s a nice kit that has two vials of Narcan in it and has the nasal syringe and the adaptor. As far as the cost, we speculate the entire cost of the kit is under $25.”

Larson speculates that when that runs out purchasing individual doses would be in the $10-12 range. Training also wasn’t too time-intensive. Over 120 Sheriff’s Office personnel spent about an hour viewing a video, going over the signs and symptoms of opioid overdose, then learning how to administer the nasal spray. Naloxone has been available to sheriff’s deputies for about two weeks, and so far hasn’t been needed. But given spiraling upward numbers of heroin cases experienced in Pitt County in the last few years, it appears to be a tool that will be used all too often.

Melissia Larson is the grants administrator for the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office. I’m George Olsen.

George Olsen is a 1977 Havelock High School graduate. He received his B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he got his first taste of non-commercial radio working for their student station WUSC. After graduation he worked about five years in commercial radio before coming to work at Public Radio East where he has remained since outside of a nearly 3-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the early 1990s. On his return to eastern North Carolina he hosted classical music for Public Radio East before moving into the Morning Edition host position and now can be heard on All Things Considered. He also hosts and produces The Sound, five hours of Americana, Roots Rock and Contemporary Folk weekday evenings on PRE Public Radio East News & Ideas, and is a news and feature producer for Public Radio East.