Stories of the Year #10. With heroin use surging, state looks across its borders

Last modified: 12/31/2014 11:01:02 AM
Opioid abuse, specifically heroin, emerged as a major threat in 2014, forcing the state’s safety, medical and political leaders to scramble in search of a solution.

According to data released in a recent report, 911 calls for drug overdoses had nearly tripled since 2011. Deaths caused by overdoses last year were five times the number in 2010, said the state Bureau of Emergency Medical Services.

In addition, 659 calls to 911 for drug overdoses were placed in 2011, and that number stood at 1,554 calls through the first eight months of this year.

The problem was troubling enough to prompt Gov. Maggie Hassan to mention it during her State of the State address in February.

“New Hampshire has among the highest rates in the country of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence, but ranks at the bottom in accessing treatment,” Hassan said. “Heroin use is on the rise statewide, as the leading cause of drug overdose deaths in 2012, and prescription drug abuse remains high.”

Enter intranasal naloxone, commonly known by its brand name, Narcan, which is used by the state’s emergency workers with advanced training.

Department of Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes submitted a report to Hassan last month detailing the need for better access to the drug, which can quickly reverse the symptoms of an overdose of heroin and other opioids.

Naloxone had been successfully administered by laypeople and emergency personnel to reverse more than 10,000 opioid overdoses nationwide in 2010.

Closer to home, supporters of the drug’s life-saving potential pointed out that naloxone was used in Massachusetts and Vermont by family members, police officers, even other drug users during emergency scenarios.

Here, though, only emergency workers with advanced training can administer naloxone in crisis situations, meaning the majority of the state’s 3,000 emergency medical technicians are not permitted to deliver and use naloxone.

Barthelmes recommended loosening restrictions and allowing police and fire department workers, those who were not licensed in emergency medicine, to be legally allowed to carry and use naloxone while waiting for emergency medical services to arrive.

The idea grew out of a coalition of the state’s top safety and medical leaders, who devised a plan this fall to combat the unprecedented spike in heroin abuse.

To create a new licensing level for EMS, the report submitted to Hassan suggested streamlining the process and establishing training standards tailored to the use of naloxone. That would include a three-hour class and four hours on CPR and rescue breathing.

Life-saving examples cited across the country have created momentum for a change in our system.

“It really is quite a miracle drug,” Sue Prentiss, the coordinator of emergency medical services at Concord Hospital, told the Monitor last month. “Many times you have someone in complete respiratory arrest and they are up and talking to you in seconds.”

Ray Duckler


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