Seattle Police got the call on Sunday — a 21-year-old woman was on the ground and unresponsive at 9th and Pine. According to police reports she was extremely pale, had a faint heartbeat and did not appear to be breathing. Hypodermic needles laid next to her.
The officers gave her nasal naloxone, a heroin overdose antidote. Four minutes later, the woman was speaking in full sentences with medics and transported to Harborview Medical Center.
It was SPD’s 10th overdose save since it began equipping 60 bike cops with naloxone in March. It also came just ahead of the U.S. Surgeon General’s visit to Seattle to discuss the opioid epidemic.
“We have officers who are taking initiative to do something that’s not necessarily in their job description, but which is part of their overall mission, which is to save and protect lives,” said Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy while visiting SPD’s downtown headquarters. He called the program creative and commended the police department.
According to a July report from the UW Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute, King County saw 132 heroin overdose deaths in 2015. Treatment admissions for heroin peaked, surpassing alcohol for the first time. Opioid abuse now kills more Americans than car accidents, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. It’s difficult to pin down just how many happen on Capitol Hill, but experts say the neighborhood is an overdose hotspot. The arrival of downtown homeless outreach workers to Capitol Hill was prompted in part by the rise of drug users living on the street.
Murthy has been traveling across the nation to speak about the opioid crisis. He held a media event Tuesday with SPD to highlight the naloxone program and joined them on a brief bike tour downtown.
“Let’s be clear that the opioid epidemic is a full-blown public health crisis,” Murthy said. “It’s one that we can’t ignore. It’s one that we in many ways had a hand in creating as a nation, and one that we have to do everything we can to end.”
But there is not one solution, he said, adding that prescribing practices need to be sharpened, first responders need carry to naloxone, treatment access needs to be expanded, and the public needs to be educated about opioid addiction.
SPD officer Steve Redmond said delivering naloxone won’t change the person receiving it, but it gives them the opportunity to change their own life. Redmond said the department is averaging one application per week of naloxone with nine out of 10 distributions in the downtown core. One officer has been involved in four applications of naloxone.
“And that’s just out with just 60 people,” Redmond said. “Eventually we’d like to see it go out to 600 of our officers, which will make even a bigger impact.”
Murthy said more police around the country are working to address the opioid crisis and some are carrying naloxone. He said police must be involved in the effort and that Seattle is an example of law enforcement creating public health change.
Police are working with the Seattle Fire Department, the Marah Project, and the University of Washington on the naloxone program in an attempt to combat deaths due to opioid overdoses during a six to eight month trial period. Along with saving lives, officers are also collecting data to evaluate the program’s impact.
Caleb Banta-Green, UW health services affiliate associate professor, said they’re trying to determine if the naloxone deployment is beneficial and how can it be most efficiently deployed. Making those determinations will help to improve the system, he said.
Murthy’s national Turn the Tide campaign will be making further stops in Washington. The campaign seeks to improve prescribing practices by mobilizing health care professionals, educate citizens about protecting themselves and their families and change perceptions about addiction.