Worried about dangers of opioids, Bellingam police start carrying Narcan

Bellingham police have started to carry Narcan in their patrol vehicles to reverse opioid overdoses as concern continues to grow over the abuse of heroin and fentanyl.

Narcan is a nasal spray that is the brand name for naloxone, and Bellingham police have had it in their vehicles for about a month.

The department becomes the latest law enforcement agency in Whatcom County to carry Narcan. Blaine police have done so since summer, while Nooksack and Lummi police have had Narcan for a number of years.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said his department planned to buy Narcan soon, using money in its 2017-18 budget.

“Opiates are currently a huge problem, not only regionally but nationally,” Blaine police Officer Brent Greene said, adding that the drugs kill people at a much higher rate than other drugs.

Whatcom County ranks third out of 39 counties for overall negative impacts from heroin abuse and sixth for overall negative impacts from prescription opiates, according to a 2016-19 Community Health Needs Assessment for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.

And the county Health Department was among 10 in Washington state to receive 2,100 doses of injectable naloxone for a pilot project to give the lifesaving medication to injection drug users, or their friends and families, in rural counties.

It was part of a statewide effort to widen access to naloxone as Washington and the nation struggle with an epidemic of opioid abuse and overdose.

Meanwhile, some Island County residents are petitioning legislators to get Narcan into the hands of all first responders there.

The Narcan carried by law enforcement, who also received training on when to use it, will be used in case medics aren’t there.

“If medics arrive at a scene as we are learning that this is an opioid-involved incident, we will always defer to the medics,” Bellingham police Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said.

The former scenario was the case shortly after 3 a.m. Oct. 12, when Bellingham police gave Narcan to a 61-year-old man who was in a travel trailer in a parking lot in the 1500 block of Birchwood Avenue. A woman had called police, who found the man unconscious and with a weak pulse.

He began to respond within moments of police giving him the nasal spray.

Bellingham police and other law enforcement said they also want to have Narcan on hand in case they needed it for themselves, as was the case with 11 SWAT officers in Hartford, Conn., who were taken to the hospital after running through a cloud of dust that turned out to be fentanyl and heroin during a drug bust in September.

“We’re trying to arm ourselves with something that is useful on a lot of different levels,” Vander Yacht said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. It can be deadly in even very small doses, and can be absorbed through the skin or through inhalation.

“I have been advised that fentanyl is being trafficked throughout our region,” Vander Yacht said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has warned law enforcement about the dangers of being exposed to fentanyl, which illegal drugmakers are mixing with heroin to increase its potency.

“The onset of adverse health effects, such as disorientation, coughing, sedation, respiratory distress or cardiac arrest, is very rapid and profound, usually occurring within minutes of exposure,” the DEA said. “Canine units are particularly at risk of immediate death from inhaling fentanyl.”

The DEA recommended that Narcan be given immediately to reverse an accidental overdose.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea