• EDITOR’S NOTE: Pennsylvania is at the epicenter of the deadliest drug epidemic in history. Following is one in a periodic series of stories about opioids by journalists around the state spotlighting community support, outreach, care and prevention. All are about hope.
MEDIA — In 2014, when Pennsylvania legislators first passed the law allowing police officers and other first responders to carry Narcan, the overdose-rescue drug, Delaware County’s officers were already trained and ready to begin using it.
By the end of the program’s first month, an officer in Ridley Township was the first in the state to save someone with a dose of Narcan. In the last four years, officers in this suburban Philadelphia county have revived more than 1,000 people.
Last fall, Delaware County logged another first, becoming the first Pennsylvania county to sue pharmaceutical companies for the costs the county incurred fighting the opioid crisis. Officials called it the beginning of a war against Big Pharma. Counties around the state followed.
“We’ve always done that with respect to addressing the needs of our community,” said district attorney Kat Copeland, who heads the county’s heroin task force. “We created our first treatment court in 1998, when heroin and opioids weren’t the problem you see today. We’ve always tried to stay a little bit ahead of the issue.”
In 2016, Delaware County’s fatal overdose rate was the 18th-highest in the state. But county officials say they began noticing troubling trends in addiction and overdoses more than a decade ago. Paramedic James McCans, who spearheaded the police department’s Narcan program, remembers responding to the scene of an overdose in 2007. The victim, a young man, overdosed and died in the backyard of a woman who was terminally ill.
He had been digging through her trash, hoping to find the remnants of a fentanyl patch she had been prescribed for pain.
“At that point you sit there and go, how powerful is this drug, that someone would do that?” McCans said. “That was the story that shook me the most. It was a real wake-up call.”
McCans and others, like former District Attorney Jack Whelan, worked to equip police with Narcan; Whelan lobbied to change state law so the county’s officers could start carrying it.
For some police officers, it was a hard sell. They were used to arresting people for using drugs, said Haverford Police Chief John Viola, and the state’s new Good Samaritan law — passed to encourage people to call the police when someone overdosed — meant that people who called 911 in such a case couldn’t be prosecuted themselves for drug possession.
“But officers bought into it very quickly — seeing the results of using Narcan, it’s an immediate reversal. Someone is on their death bed, and it brings them back,” he said. “And our job is to save lives.”