‘To save everyone we can’

Inability to treat addicts frustrating

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Logan Township Police officer Justin Hollern places naloxone in his medical bag for his shift. In June, Altoona police revived a man who overdosed on heroin, and later that day, AMED personnel brought him back again after another heroin overdose. The 2014 Good Samaritan law prevents prosecution of people who call for help because of a drug overdose.

It was just before 1 a.m. — 12:54 a.m. to be exact — on June 28 when Altoona police were dispatched to an apartment on the 200 block of Third Avenue for reports of a possible cardiac arrest.

Instead, officers found a man on the floor, unconscious from a heroin overdose. Police described in a search warrant later filed for the apartment that the man had “a weak pulse, shallow, short breathing, blue lips and discolored complexion.”

An officer gave the man a 4 mg dose of naloxone, reviving him. Police noted there were two open and empty wax packets and a white, powdery substance as well, on an end table near the man. Police said the man’s girlfriend told them he’s been using heroin daily for the past month.

The man was taken by AMED ambulance to UPMC Altoona. The man checked himself out of the hospital at 1:30 a.m. and went home.

At 5:52 a.m., Altoona police were dispatched again to the Third Avenue apartment for a report of a heroin overdose. Officers noted in the search warrant that they arrived to find the man once again unresponsive, half on top of a mattress on the living room floor. He was overdosing on heroin again. This time, it was AMED personnel who brought him back with a dose of naloxone, this time intravenously.

It’s a frustrating scenario for local police, who because of the 2014 Good Samaritan law, are limited. The law gives immunity from prosecution to people who call for help because of a drug overdose.

While police agree carrying naloxone is a good thing because it saves lives, when the person they are saving continues to use and not seek help, it’s a problem.

Blair County Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks pointed out one of the concerns he had with the Good Samaritan law is the situation that played out in Altoona in late June. Weeks said in the past, before the immunity in these situations, a person was charged with a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia charge — a crime he said would not carry a jail sentence but would have included a drug and alcohol evaluation and provide an incentive for the person to get treatment.

“Now, we can’t do that,” Weeks said.

Weeks recalled a case in Blair County last year when someone was given naloxone, left the hospital, did heroin and died.

Altoona police Detective Sgt. Chris Moser agreed the use of naloxone is good in that it saves lives, but he said there should also be something in the law to address the long-term issues with addiction so it’s not simply a repeating cycle.

“The problem with the Good Samaritan law is there’s no repercussions for someone to get any help or treatment,” Moser said. “You at least have to have a bit of accountability for their actions.”

Weeks said while drug and alcohol professionals may say that people have to come to terms with their addiction, society must also be considered as these addictions impact the police, medical and ambulance services and the community because of crimes committed to pay for illicit drugs.

Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, is co-sponsor of Senate Bill 654, which would force people to seek treatment within 30 days of an overdose or risk losing their immunity from prosecution related to the overdose.

“We’re hearing people are abusing Narcan (the brand name version of naloxone),” Eichelberger said, noting there has even been stories of “Narcan parties” where users will experiment with higher doses or combinations of drugs because they know if there is an overdose, they will be safe because they have naloxone on hand.

Eichelberger said he thinks naloxone is a good idea, but there is concern that what should be a life-changing event that would spur people to get help is becoming routine.

“Apparently, people take it a lot more casually now because they’ll always have a second chance,” Eichelberger said. The opioid crisis is complex and there is no one solution, but compelling people to enter into some sort of treatment would help.

Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, said it’s a subject he wants to get better educated about and would show deference to people involved in the issue, such as police. If people are using opioids and overdosing and then never seeking treatment or facing legal consequences, only to overdose again and again, then it’s a problem.

“If you’re not going to revive people, they die. If you revive them, they continue to abuse drugs,” McGinnis said of the conundrum.

McGinnis pointed out this effect isn’t entirely unforeseen since reviving an overdose victim with naloxone doesn’t address the underlying addiction. Unless they get help, the risk of overdosing again will remain. Having people dying, however, is not a better option, he said.

“You have to scratch your head when they’re intent on self-defeating behavior,” he said.

Judy Rosser, executive director of Blair County Drug & Alcohol Partnership Inc., cautioned that forcing people into rehabilitation isn’t feasible, from a logistical standpoint or a treatment perspective.

“There just isn’t the resources,” Rosser said, noting that there are fewer beds than people wanting to fill them at treatment centers in the state.

Naloxone, Rosser said, isn’t meant to address the long-term problem of addiction and that saving lives is extremely important in the fight against opioid use.

“It’s not a solution, it’s a safety net,” Rosser said of naloxone.

Rosser said that more needs to be done to free up hospitals from bureaucratic red tape that limits them in the area of withdrawal management. When a person is overdosing on opioids such as heroin, a dose of naloxone may revive them, but it also sends them into immediate withdrawal.

“The reality of it is, they know how to relieve the pain,” she said, adding she is not justifying situations where someone overdoses, is revived and then overdoses again a short while later, but rather she is explaining the basis for it.

At Logan Township, police have been carrying Narcan for about a year and have successfully revived five people. Chief Tim Mercer said while he is aware of some of the negative reactions people have to police carrying naloxone, the times where it has been used by the officers show the importance of carrying the drug. One incident, officers arrived to a home before paramedics to find a mother giving CPR to her 26-year-old daughter. The officer gave the woman a dose of Narcan and saved her life.

“That young lady was given another opportunity to overcome this battle she has with this addiction,” Mercer said. “Instead of having to plan a funeral, they were able to hug their daughter and help get her treatment.”

Mercer said he supports the idea of compelling people to seek treatment because without treatment, a person is very likely to go right back into old habits. That is why he believes getting the overdose victim to a hospital after being revived by Narcan not only is medically necessary, but also a step in getting that person into treatment.

Mercer also pointed out not every instance of an overdose is because of illicit drug use, pointing out small children who get into their parents’ prescription drugs as well as the elderly person who may accidentally take too much of a medication are also real-life scenarios.

“My viewpoint is, we are in law enforcement to serve the public and that comes in many forms,” Mercer said. “If we have an opportunity to save a life, that is the ultimate way to serve and protect. We’re going to do everything we can to save everyone we can.”

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.