Police officers turn to opioid-blocking naloxone to save lives in Sonoma County

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Fast-acting officers helped save a Petaluma woman’s life Tuesday when they gave her an opioid overdose-blocking medicine that’s become increasingly popular among Sonoma County police departments in recent months.

Officers found the unresponsive woman, identified as being in her 30s, inside a parked car on Hayes Lane, a residential area on the west side of town. A friend called police at about 3:05 p.m. to report they had smoked heroin and that the woman may have had too much.

Officers arrived two minutes before the paramedics and found the woman wasn’t breathing. She started overdosing about eight minutes prior, police said. Not wanting to wait any longer, one of the officers grabbed a dose of naloxone and squeezed it into the woman’s nose.

“After about 20 seconds, she started showing signs that she was improving,” Petaluma Police Lt. Brian Miller said.“This is the first time that we’ve administered the medication and they’ve survived.”

Petaluma officers have used naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, on a handful of occasions, since the department this spring equipped each sworn employee with the medicine and trained them how to use it. Although before Tuesday, attempts to revive other people who have overdosed had not been successful.

The antidote comes in the form of a nasal spray and works by blocking opiates from attaching to receptors in the brain, reversing the drug’s effects.

Police departments in three other Sonoma County cities — Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg — are among the growing group of law enforcement agencies outfitting officers with the potentially life-saving medication in Northern California.

All four agencies cited the rising number of opioid-related deaths across the country as the reason for investing in naloxone programs.

In 2016, fatal opioid-related overdoses happened at a rate of 13.3 per 100,000 people nationwide, up from 5 in 2010, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. California’s rate was much lower, 4.9 per every 100,000 people, in 2016 and has remained steady in recent years, though some counties fare better than others.

Police said they’re also turning to naloxone because of the increased presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described as 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. While pharmaceutical companies sell the drug, an uptick in fentanyl-related deaths in recent years is likely linked to illegally- produced versions of the drug.

Officers are susceptible to coming in contact with fentanyl while on the job and also could benefit from naloxone. Such was the case this summer when two undercover Alameda County narcotics investigators were hospitalized during a Hayward motel drug raid when they came in contact with fentanyl while searching one of the rooms. Narcan was used to help one of the detectives who experienced respiratory problems after being exposed to a microscopic cloud of fentanyl.

In Sonoma County, the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety became the first to equip its officers with Narcan in December 2017.

The agency saw early success when Narcan helped save the life of a 67-year-old man suspected of overdosing on heroin on Jan. 27. Two weeks later, officers used the medication again when they found an unresponsive 22-year-old man inside a Racquet Club Circle home who showed signs of opioid overdose.

Petaluma officers followed suit.

It started with an initial 15 doses of naloxone in April and later the department fully invested in a naloxone program, supplying every sworn officer with the medication, after a 16-year-old boy died from a drug overdose at a Petaluma home that same month.

The teen’s mother, Danielle Foernsler, 34, was arrested for failing to call for help even though police said she likely knew her son was suffering from a medical emergency after taking drugs.

It was the third overdose death in Petaluma in six months.

“That was a significant event for our community and it highlighted what we had seen locally,” Miller said.

Although Healdsburg police officers haven’t responded to any opioid-overdose deaths in several years, naloxone was stored in every patrol car at the start of summer.

“To me, it seemed better to be prepared for it,” Police Chief Kevin Burke said.

The Santa Rosa Police Department is the latest to adopt Narcan, paying for the medication with asset forfeiture funds from narcotic seizures. The department bought almost 200 kits, each containing two 4-milligram doses. It gave them to volunteers, officers and other employees, including those who can potentially come in contact with fentanyl while handling evidence, at the end of August.

Each kit cost about $75, Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Chris Mahurin said.

“Basically anyone who has access to the community or any of the evidence now has Narcan,” Mahurin said.

Santa Rosa police last year responded to more than half of the county’s fatal overdoses involving heroin and fentanyl, Sonoma County Coroner’s Office data showed. Of the 24 deaths, 13 were reported in the Santa Rosa city limits.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office responded to eight of the deaths. The three others happened in Windsor, Cloverdale and Cotati.

In the first six months of this year, 15 overdose deaths were reported in Sonoma County.

The Cloverdale Police Department currently doesn’t supply its officers with naloxone, though there is an interest in adding the medication to officers’ tool belts, Sgt. Rudy Segobiano said.

While more police departments are equipping their officers with naloxone, some agencies, including the Santa Rosa CHP office and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, have raised concerns over the high temperatures in patrol cars, which can diminish the quality of the medication.

They also say they have a large number of officers, making it costly to supply them with the life-saving medication that has a limited shelf life.

In Tuesday’s incident involving the Petaluma woman, police suspect the friend who called to report the overdose may have disposed of or hid the drugs before dialing 911, Miller said. The delay could have been a costly one in a situation where every minute counts.

Approved in 2013, California’s Good Samaritan law protects people from legal repercussions when seeking medical help for someone overdosing.

“We want people to call if they suspect someone is having a medical emergency instead of waiting,” Miller said. “We can’t take legal enforcement action, and we’re not there to.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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