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Commentary: More Narcan in cops' hands will prevent OD deaths

By Gary Tennis The opiate epidemic is taking a devastating toll on Philadelphia, but we have an opportunity to confront one aspect of this crisis: putting a stop to fatal overdoses.

By Gary Tennis

The opiate epidemic is taking a devastating toll on Philadelphia, but we have an opportunity to confront one aspect of this crisis: putting a stop to fatal overdoses.

Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a life-saving drug that works by displacing the opioid drug from the brain receptors, thus restoring breathing. Naloxone is key to keeping people alive and it is imperative that we put it into the hands of police officers and first responders in Philadelphia and across the commonwealth.

The numbers of overdoses in Philadelphia are devastating.

In just a five-day span in December, 35 people are believed to have died from drug overdoses.

In November, Philadelphia suffered 50 overdoses in one day.

According to city health officials, the number of Philadelphia overdoses in 2016 will likely top 900.

Police officers in Pennsylvania are already making a difference with naloxone, with more than 2,100 lives saved since the program began in late November 2014. These officers are not just reviving those who have overdosed - they are working with teams to persuade people who suffer from substance abuse disorders to enter treatment.

Stopping an overdose is the first step on the path to recovery. With proper treatment, overdose survivors can recover from their addiction and go on to join the 23 million Americans living rich, full lives of recovery.

In 2015, Gov. Wolf announced that through a combination of grants donated by health insurers and medical systems, every state patrol car in Pennsylvania would be equipped with two naloxone doses. We worked with district attorneys across the state to educate their local police forces about carrying Narcan and encourage its distribution. The administration also partnered with police chiefs to produce a 30-minute online naloxone training module for officers that also provides statutory immunity from civil liability.

In Philadelphia, we just authorized the city's Department of Behavioral Health to use block grant funding for the purchase of $200,000 worth of naloxone for police, and we hope to add additional funding from local philanthropists.

We must continue to support access to naloxone in order to save lives. The more we get naloxone in the hands of officers and citizens, the more people we can save and get into treatment.

We all understand that saving lives with naloxone isn't enough, and the Wolf administration is implementing a comprehensive strategy to strengthen prevention and treatment across the state. Having treatment options available for overdose victims is essential.

Because the governor expanded Medicaid to 692,000 Pennsylvanians, including more than 162,000 Philadelphians, more individuals are eligible to receive treatment for addictions. In fact, due to Medicaid expansion, we have seen a tripling of license applications for new treatment facilities from 2013 to 2016 to help with the demand.

Another Wolf administration initiative is our new state-sponsored hotline - 1-800-662-HELP - where callers can speak to a person 24/7 and connect to nearby treatment. In just its first month, more than 1,000 callers were referred to detox or treatment.

Even 240 years ago, Declaration of Independence signer Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphian, identified addiction as a disease, not a moral failing. And today, opiate addiction has penetrated every community in Pennsylvania, and overdose victims are someone's mother, father, son, or daughter. We need to quit the blame game and focus on the solution.

Last year in the commonwealth, we lost almost 3,500 people - about 10 a day - to addiction. We know the number of opioid deaths this year will be much higher. The good news is that we know how to combat overdose deaths by giving local police naloxone.

In 2017, we have to work in every community to expand access to naloxone. Letting people die of this disease, especially when recovery is possible with proper treatment, is neither humane nor the mark of a true civilization.

Gary Tennis is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, and a former assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. For more information, visit