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Police seek grant to counter overdose costs

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, July 22, 2019

The continuing opioid epidemic is putting first responders at risk and burning through anti-overdose medication, local law enforcement officials say. The shortage has prompted the Elizabeth City Police Department to seek a $50,000 state grant for supplies.

Elizabeth City police Chief Eddie Buffaloe and City Manager Rich Olson presented the grant request to City Council last week.

Councilors tentatively supported applying to the Governor’s Crime Commission to tap into federal funding for an Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant. The program is named for New York City police officer killed while protecting a witness who had agreed to testify against drug dealers.

If city police receive the Byrne grant, the department plans to purchase 128 units of naloxone, at a cost of $75 each; 64 sets of personal protective gear for officers, at a cost of $22 each; and two narcotics analyzers, which cost $19,500 each.

The narcotics analyzers, while expensive, would make it easier for officers to identify substances before having to handle them. According to a city memo, the analyzers can scan for more than 370 drugs in a single test.

Buffaloe and Olson also shared some of the latest statistics on local opioid abuse.

First responders in and around Elizabeth City have administered the drug naloxone 92 times so far this year, which is about on par with the 177 treatments that Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Medical Services administered in 2018, based a memo from Olson and Buffaloe.

Naloxone binds to opioid receptors in the brain, blocking the effects of drugs such as heroin, and can quickly reverse overdoses.

Despite naloxone treatments, there have still been eight drug-related deaths since June 5, Olson and Buffaloe reported.

At a finance committee meeting Thursday, Olson elaborated that addicts are using such strong drugs, such as fentanyl-laced heroin, that it takes as many as five doses of naloxone to revive them.

Additionally, the drugs are so potent that even skin contact can harm officers. Such an accidental exposure sent a police sergeant to the hospital a few months ago, he reported.

Olson also reported the ECPD is often administering naloxone to the same people, and sometimes after their family members have already given them a dose of the drug.

Olson said the large use of naloxone is presenting a public policy dilemma, as addicts increasingly count on the drug being available while continuing to use opioids or heroin. First responders are arguably “enabling” those users, he said.

Councilors supported officers continuing to have access to naloxone, saying that saving lives should be the top consideration. Councilor Johnnie Walton called it a “no-brainer.”

Councilor Billy Caudle said the city can and should keep naloxone, even as it’s becoming increasingly expensive. He noted the city finds money for other priorities, including a costly digger truck for the electric department that councilors also agreed to during the meeting.

“I don’t like it either,” he said of the growing expense of naloxone, “but it could be your kid, or your somebody, and we just dropped $217,000 on a truck; we can certainly keep that stuff available.”

Mayor Pro Tem Rickey King agreed the city should keep treating overdose victims, but suggested charging them for naloxone after it’s administered, given each dose costs more than $70.

Olson and other councilors responded that addicts were unlikely to pay that.

Councilor Darius Horton agreed first responders should keep treating overdoses, but asked what officers do to get support or counseling for addicts.

Olson declined to say what officers do, but he noted they often can’t compel people to get help. Drug paraphernalia is often gone by the time officers arrive, which makes arrests hard or impossible. Additionally, because naloxone can fully restore consciousness, addicts are able to refuse hospitalization, he noted.

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