Kenai officers save life with newly acquired overdose-reducing drug

Members of the Kenai Police Department saved a life for the first time using the overdose-reducing drug Naloxone, known by the commercial name Narcan, as a new state program to combat Alaska’s opioid epidemic takes hold.

In the early morning hours of July 2, two Kenai police officers responded to a report of a possible overdose and “saw that the woman was gasping for breath and had overdosed on drugs,” according to a release from the department. The pair gave her the Naloxone and she began to revive while the Kenai Fire Department arrived and took over her treatment.

Naloxone does not actually save a person from an overdose. Rather, it reverses the effects of an overdose to give the person a window of time in order to be taken to a hospital or treated by emergency medical responders. That window is about 30-45 minutes, said Sgt. Eugene Fowler, supervisor of the Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit for the Alaska State Trooper’s E Detachment, which covers the Kenai Peninsula.

The use of Naloxone by first responders is not a new concept. Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker said he has been using the anti-overdose method since he began working in the emergency medical services field 34 years ago. What’s relatively new is the push to get it into the hands of law enforcement officers and civilians.

“It’s really great that especially law enforcement have it because a lot of times they do get there before us,” Tucker said.

Andy Jones is the director of the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. He’s been heading up Project HOPE, which seeks to educate the public about the signs and symptoms of drug overdoses and to get Naloxone into more people’s hands.

Alaska won a prescription drug overdose grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for about $4.3 million spread out over five years, Jones said, which is what made the education efforts and the distribution of Naloxone kits around the state through Project HOPE possible. Since Feb. 16, the project has distributed more than 5,900 kits, each containing two doses of Naloxone, throughout the entire state, Jones said. Another order for 2,200 more kits has been placed, he said.

Project HOPE partnered with the Alaska State Troopers and began training them and distributing Naloxone a little over a month ago, Jones said. Members of the Troopers’ various Statewide Drug Enforcement Units around the state attended training in Anchorage, then returned to their respective jurisdictions to train their fellow troopers, Fowler said.

Members of the SDEU who were trained in Anchorage are now training officers in other agencies, like the Kenai police.

“Basically we’re disseminating the kits to law enforcement and we’re kind of being the point of contact for all law enforcement statewide,” Fowler said.

The officers of the Kenai Police Department were trained to use Naloxone in three sessions in June, and classes are scheduled for the Soldotna Police Department, Fowler said. Members of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers and outlying AST posts in Anchor Point and Seward are also being trained. Officers at the Homer Police Department have already been trained, Fowler said.

“The benefit is twofold,” said Lt. Ben Langham of the Kenai Police Department. “The first benefit is the fact that we’re often the first ones on scene, and if we’re able to start that lifesaving process prior to waiting for the medical unit to show up, then we’re right there and we’re saving a life.”

“In the past we had nothing to counteract this (overdoses) so basically we just had to wait and secure the scene and make sure it’s safe for the medics to come in,” Fowler said.

The second reason, Langham and Fowler said, is that officers sometimes come in contact with dangerous drugs throughout the course of their work. There have been cases in the Lower 48 of officers coming into contact with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid much stronger than heroin, and going into overdose, Fowler said.

Having Naloxone on hand will help protect police as they work as well.

Kenai isn’t the only success story so far. Lives have been saved through law enforcement officers administering Naloxone in Fairbanks and the Mat-Su Valley since Project HOPE started up, Fowler said.

Project HOPE also partners with groups or agencies outside of law enforcement, Jones said, like peer recovery groups or Change 4 the Kenai. He said those involved realized not everyone will be able to afford getting Naloxone in the pharmacies it’s starting to become available in, and wanted to make sure active drug users or people who are close to them have access to it.

“We look at this as no different than EpiPens,” Jones said.

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