Law enforcement officials say at least 22 Hennepin County residents have died of heroin overdoses already this year. In a little more than two weeks, some deputies in the county will have a better shot at saving the lives of the overdose victims they encounter.
The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office says it is the first department in the state to take advantage of a new law that allows law enforcement personnel to carry and administer a drug that can temporarily reverse an opiate overdose. Other law enforcement agencies around the state are watching to see whether the program succeeds.
Deaths from opiate overdoses have skyrocketed in Minnesota and across the country in recent years, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call it an epidemic.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek is one of the main supporters of the law passed by the Minnesota Legislature in May. He said heroin overdose deaths in Hennepin County have risen from just six deaths three years ago to 56 deaths last year. Similar increases are being seen across the state.
"This is a real problem, a real epidemic -- real people are dying and we need to do what we can to save them," Stanek said. "It's incumbent on us to do all that we can do to move this forward, every one of them are real lives."
The new law goes into effect on Aug. 1, and allows law enforcement personnel and other emergency responders to carry and administer the anti-overdose drug naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan. Under the law, a doctor must write a standing order for an agency and staff must undergo a training in how to administer Narcan.
Two dozen Hennepin County sheriff's deputies will be trained in how to administer a nasal version of Narcan Thursday by staff from Hennepin County Medical Center. Dr. Jeffrey Ho wrote the standing order for the department. He said the antidote works by overpowering the opiates that are shutting down the overdose victim's respiratory system.
"When someone is in an overdose state where they've stopped breathing and they're completely unconscious, essentially they're dead at that point," Ho said. "When you give them this antidote, you're reversing that condition, they're waking up immediately."
Trained to spot, react appropriately
The training will include instructions on recognizing an opiate overdose, such as pinpoint pupils and slowed breathing. But Ho said instructors will also train deputies on how to do rescue breathing and prepare for the patient's reaction when the Narcan kicks in.
"When they wake up they're very confused, and most often they're very combative, when that happens, they'll wake up swinging," Ho said. "We'll teach deputies that when they're getting ready to give this that they have to be prepared for potentially a fight when the person wakes up."
The sheriff's ultimate goal is to train at least 75 deputies. It's going to cost about $12,000 to get the Hennepin County program going, which Stanek said will come primarily out of the department's drug forfeiture and seizure fund.
"It's a novel approach," Stanek said. "We're using those [funds] that were seized from narcotic dealers and others who peddle this poison on the street to save others who unfortunately end up with this poison."
Other counties watching
The Anoka County Sheriff's Office is one of many law enforcement agencies across the state that's closely watching Hennepin County's efforts. Cmdr. Paul Sommer said the law sounds good on paper, but that there may be some downsides to consider.
"There's the cost of the drug, the cost of the training; the statute requires that we have a medical director to authorize us to carry and administer the substance," Sommer said. "It's all something that we're still researching, all of the obligations."
Sommer emphasizes that the department isn't against the law, but that it's not as simple as putting some Narcan in a duty bag and throwing it into the trunk. A spokesperson for the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office said the department is taking a similar wait and see approach. Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson John Elder currently has no plans to outfit officers with the antidote because officers in urban areas aren't primary responders.
Stanek said he's been reaching out to police chiefs and sheriffs across the state to explain how Hennepin County has been able to overcome some of the obstacles built into the new law.
Lexi Reed Holtum of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, which spearheaded the push for the new law, said her group is also working with departments across the state to educate them about the requirements of the law and the effects of the overdose epidemic in their area.
"If it's that they're having problems and they aren't behind the law because they don't agree with certain components of it, then we really want to help educate them as to the reality of the situation," Holtum said. "If it's because they don't have the funding, then how [can we] help work with them to help find the funding in the state."
Both Holtum and Stanek were among the supporters of the law at an official signing ceremony with Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday that also included many family members of overdose victims.
"After 31 years of public service, as a cop, as a policy maker, this is one of the proudest moments of my career," Stanek said. "This will save lives."