TWIN FALLS — Opioid overdose patients in Twin Falls may have a greater chance of survival now, thanks to a new tool carried by the city’s police officers.
As opioid use explodes across the country, a growing number of police departments — Twin Falls now among them — are equipping their officers with naloxone, a medication delivered by injection or nasal spray that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose.
Typically, when an officer arrives at the scene of a potential overdose, they must wait for medics to get there to give the patient medical attention. Now, first responders in Twin Falls and elsewhere can administer an antidote themselves while waiting for additional help to arrive.
Naloxone — often referred to as Narcan, the brand name of a nasal spray form of naloxone used by the Twin Falls police and many other departments — isn’t an end-all medical treatment for potential overdoses. But proponents of equipping first responders with Narcan say it’s a simple, low-risk tool that can mean the difference between life and death.
“It’s no secret this is a national healthcare phenomenon that is truly affecting all of our country,” said Twin Falls Police Chief Craig Kingsbury. “This is a easily administered medication that, if used in a timely manner on people who have overdosed on opioid substances, can reverse the effects and in essence help them breathe again and save lives.”
In Twin Falls, there have already been two instances of officers successfully using Narcan on overdose patients since October, when the department began training and equipping its officers, Kingsbury said. The department started looking into using Narcan late last year.
Overdoses from opioids, particularly heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, have skyrocketed within the past few years. More than 64,000 people in the US died from drug overdoses in 2016, with opioids leading the death count, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. The number of deaths involving heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have especially increased since 2010.
There hasn’t been a rise in overdose deaths in Twin Falls over the past couple of years, but police data suggests that heroin is becoming more prevalent as illegal prescription drugs become more difficult to obtain.
Up until roughly a year ago, heroin overdoses were rare in the area, said Matt Larsen, an emergency room doctor at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center. Now they’re more common.
Since October, Larsen has led training sessions for the Twin Falls Police Department to explain to officers how the drug works, the correct way to administer it, and under what circumstances it should be used.
When he was first approached by the city to assist with trainings, Larsen said, he was somewhat reluctant.
“Police should not normally be tasked with medical provision,” he said. However, he continued, “having them have a very simple treatment that has no significant side effects ... seems like a reasonable way of trying to save lives.”
The Twin Falls Police Department is not the only law enforcement agency in the Magic Valley to consider using Narcan. The Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office plans to consult the police department’s model for equipment and training, Sheriff Tom Carter said, with the goal of eventually outfitting its deputies with the antidote as well.
Blaine County deputies will also soon carry Narcan, supplied by a local pharmacy, according to Sheriff Steve Harkins. The department is in the early stages of training, he said.
Deputies in Minidoka and Cassia counties already carry the medication, but only to use on themselves in case of emergency.
Other local sheriffs said they did not have plans to equip deputies with naloxone to use on potential overdose patients, though Gooding County Sheriff Shaun Gough and Jerome County Sheriff Doug McFall indicated that they may be open to rethinking the possibility in the future if needed. Calls to the Lincoln County and Camas County Sheriff’s Offices were not immediately returned.
So far, said Jerome Police Chief Dan Hall, his department doesn’t have any plans to follow in Twin Falls’s footsteps, as Jerome hasn’t seen a significant rise in opioid use.
“I can’t guarantee that won’t happen in the future,” he said. “Given what’s going on all around us, it would almost be reasonable to expect that that will rise at some point in time.”