Rising use of opioid overdose rescue shots worries some health workers

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows opioid overdoses continue to skyrocket in the United States. Emergency rooms in the Midwest are seeing the largest spike, with Illinois emergency room visits jumping 66 percent from July 2016 through September 2017.

Federal health officials said there needs to be continued emphasis on fighting the epidemic on several fronts, including equipping more first responders and community members with opioid overdose antidotes such as naloxone which is also known by its brand name Narcan.

According to the last count from the Illinois Department of Public Health, naloxone is now available without a prescription at 148 pharmacies throughout the state.

But the ABC7 I-Team learned some health experts were raising concerns about the growing use of these rescue shots.

Reversal drugs are credited with saving countless lives. A person can stop breathing during an overdose. Naloxone, in spray or injectable form, can restore breathing if administered in time.

Last year, dash cam video recorded by the Park Forest Police Department captured officers administering naloxone to an unresponsive driver.

"You see somebody by all means who is incapacitated and within a few seconds they are coming back, showing signs of life, it's something to see, definitely," said Detective J.P. Garrity, Park Forest Police Department.

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Dash cam video of Park Forest police officers administering nalaxone to reverse an opioid overdose.

At least five Chicago-area counties are keeping track of naloxone saves, with an estimate of more than 800 in the past four years.

But despite the stories of dramatic saves some physicians question the effort to equip all first responders, calling it a giant public health experiment.

"Perhaps naloxone isn't saving lives, but rather it is delaying death. So if you don't die the first time you get naloxone, you don't get into treatment, you are going to wind up using opioids again, overdosing again, and getting naloxone," said Dr. Lewis Nelson, head of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School/

Dr. Lewis questions whether the drug is saving as many lives as people think, since it can be difficult for a layperson to know for sure if someone is near death.

And while the drug is considered safe with few side effects, he also said antidotes can send an opioid user into a risky and intense withdrawal.

Dr. Lewis insisted that it is still best to err on the side of giving it. He just wants more public health officials to push for more research and data.

"We know when we try to do good things for public health reasons there are unintended consequences, we just don't understand until we study it," he said.

Many emergency department health providers agree more data is need. They stressed naloxone is saving lives, but is just one part of the solution to this public health crisis.

"We are not going to solve an opioid crisis in the United States by simply flooding everybody with having naloxone or Narcan. Better follow-up care and prevention programs, which are now being enacted are also seen as key to stopping the revolving door of repeat patients," said Dr. Mark Courtney, emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine.

As part of a 2016 law, all Illinois police departments are required to train for and carry opioid antidotes. But the I-Team learned not all local police departments complied with that law, apparently hampered by cost and limited access to the kind of training needed.

The Chicago Police Department and departments from dozens of Cook County suburbs are now getting on board. Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel said his small suburban department has been carrying the medication for several years and has deployed the medication six times since 2015. He said it only makes sense for officers to carry this tool which has to potential to save lives.

Weitzel said four of their saves happened in the past year, including a 62-year-old man who explained that he took heroin because he was desperate for pain relief after knee surgery.

"I hear there is some controversy whether law enforcement is deploying it where it doesn't need to be deployed but I know of no case like that because they are training you what to look for. Do residents and citizens think that the police should do nothing when we have the tool available", Weitzel said.

Apparently, not all residents back the use of naloxone. Chief Weitzel said he's received complaints about officers administering the drug even thought the program is paid for by private donations.

"I've received phone calls and complaints from individuals that heard about our program and initially complained that we were funding it though the village, which we are not. Since we started the program in 2015 it's been completely either grant-funded or, just recently, residents have walked into the police station and given us money to continue the program", Weitzel told the I-Team.

Illinois has a statewide opioid helpline. It is available at 1-833-2FINDHELP and is funded through a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
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