Summit County police officers will carry opioid-reversal drug Narcan

Jack Queen
A Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue paramedic holding the opioid-reversal drug Naloxone. Summit County police will soon carry the drug as well, thanks to a grant received from the state by the county public health department.
Jack Queen / |

Prescription opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled in Colorado since 2000, an increase that has pushed the state’s rate well above the national average, according to the latest data from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

Summit County has not been immune to the trend. Six people in the county have died of opioid overdose in the past two years alone, according to the coroner’s office, and Summit has the eleventh-highest rate of opioid-related deaths in the state.

This year, the county’s public health department has received a $75,000 grant to combat the problem through public awareness campaigns and training for local providers on how to safely limit the number of prescription opiates entering the community.

“It’s definitely an issue here locally, and it’s one that is growing,” said public health director Amy Wineland. “This is about moving from ‘what’ to ‘how’ and engaging people in becoming part of the solution. We’ve been working on this for a few years, so it’s exciting to see it come to fruition.”

“Dead drug users do not have the opportunity for recovery.”Lisa RavilleExecutive directorHarm Reduction Action Center

A portion of the money will also be used to equip local police with the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone, which can provide a final line of defense against opioid-related deaths.

Paramedics currently carry the drug, but with the grant money, Summit police will soon join the 133 law enforcement agencies across the state that are now equipped with it as well.

The county is enlisting the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center to acquire 100 doses of the nasal application version of Naloxone, known as Narcan, and train officers how to recognize a possible overdose and administer the drug.

“It’s especially important for law enforcement to be able to respond to those overdoses, because sometimes we beat firefighters and EMS to those calls,” Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “We anticipate that this will enable us to save lives and get people revived.”

Naloxone works by knocking opiates off of their receptors in the brain for 30 to 90 minutes, which buys time to provide life-saving care. It does not produce a high, and is in fact disliked by drug users because it induces withdrawal.

“There’s a common misconception that if you give users Naloxone they’ll use more heroin because they know they can come back, and that’s totally false,” said Lisa Raville, executive director of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. “It precipitates withdrawal, and opioid users hate being in withdrawal.”

The drug works rapidly, which is why it’s important for police to be able to administer it immediately and save precious minutes.

“It reverses the effects of an overdose very quickly, and often you’ll have someone wide awake and breathing again within a minute,” said Lake Dillon Fire firefighter and paramedic Paul Camillo.

Camillo said he was glad that police would now be equipped with the drug given the higher number of overdose calls first responders have been getting.

“There is a drug problem here,” he said. “We don’t see as many (overdoses) as Denver, but we’re seeing quite a few more than we used to.”

Naloxone technically requires a prescription, but under Colorado law it can be purchased at pharmacies without the involvement of a doctor. It is currently available at Walgreens, Safeway and City Market, Wineland said.

The drug is not itself a solution to the opioid epidemic, and efforts to make it more available are in fact an indicator of how serious the problem has become. But until more comprehensive solutions can be found, advocates say that Naloxone provides a critical safeguard against the most tragic consequence of drug abuse.

“Dead drug users do not have the opportunity for recovery,” Raville said. “If stigma, shame and incarceration worked with drug use we would have wrapped this up years ago, but all it’s done is drive drug use underground. Summit County is doing something different.”

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