PITCARIN, Pa. - Pitcairn police will become the first department in Western Pennsylvania to be equipped to administer a potentially life-saving medication to heroin overdose victims, officials said.
In partnership with Allegheny Health Network and Forbes Hospital in Monroeville, Pitcairn will equip its officers with naloxone — known by its brand name, Narcan — a drug that counteracts the effects of heroin or opiates through a nasal spray or injection into a muscle with an Epipen-type autoinjector. It will not reverse damage from overdoses or the effects of cocaine, methamphetamine and other narcotics.
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The few minutes between a police officer's arrival and the arrival of medics can be critical, said Dr. Daniel Schwartz, EMS medical director at Forbes Hospital. Most ambulances and medics carry the medication, but aren't always on scene first, he said.
“That five to 10 minutes can make the difference between the person surviving with no problems and being brain-dead because of oxygen deprivation,” Schwartz said. “You can't get to rehab if you don't survive the overdose.”
On Thursday afternoon, Schwartz trained most of Pitcairn's 16 officers on when and how to use the drug and disposable nasal sprayers, for which the hospital is picking up the $22-per-dose cost.
“People might think it's just for junkies, for heroin overdoses, but it's for opiate-based (drugs),” said Pitcairn police Chief Scott Farally. “It could help a child who accidentally takes medication; it could help an elderly person who has accidentally overdosed.”
Locally and nationally, an uptick in the potency of heroin, along with some dealers adding fentanyl to their heroin or repackaging it to look like oxycodone, is contributing to an increase in overdoses, Schwartz said.
Hospital staff and medics noticed an increase in overdoses during the last few years in Pitcairn and the region, though exact numbers were not immediately available because some patients refused medical treatment upon returning to consciousness. Others died at the scene and their cases were handled by the medical examiner's office, Schwartz said.
“For the number of people in town, it's frightening,” he said. “If we had any other kind of health crisis like it, people would be clamoring for an answer.”
When Schwartz found that the police, emergency medical services and borough government in Pitcairn all were willing to be the first to try deploying naloxone, the partnership with the hospital began.
Mark Hall, chief of the Clarion police department and president of the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, said other local departments will closely watch Pitcairn's success with Narcan. But he said they may hesitate to use it because they fear exposing their municipalities to potential additional liability.
“It's similar to the situation years and years ago when police departments were hesitant to put (automated external defibrillators) in their cars. And now look — almost everybody has them,” Hall said.
Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.