An unprecedented cluster of drug overdoses in Northampton late last month tested the city’s first responders. Their preparation — including training in the use of Narcan — helped prevent any fatalities.
As the abuse of prescription and illegal opioids continues to plague the Valley, state and nation, the response has become more sophisticated and effective. That is largely due to emergency networks such as the one established in Northampton, and regional coordination led by the prevention coalition Hampshire HOPE.
Northampton Police received six reports of drug overdoses — five resulting from heroin — between 2:08 p.m. April 28 and 10:02 a.m. April 29 throughout the city. Some occurred in private homes, while other victims were found in public places including the bike path, a parking lot and gasoline station. Police and fire rescue responders used Narcan to revive the victims.
Police issued a public health alert warning “those of you with family or friends who struggle with addiction, please be aware that this very dangerous batch of heroin is in our community.”
Detective Lt. Alan Borowski said it was the first time that many overdoses were reported “in that short period of time” during his three years of overseeing the detective unit.
That same weekend, three overdoses were reported in Greenfield, and none were fatal there either. Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan said it is not surprising that the overdoses occurred during the same time period, because heroin travels along Interstate 91.
The incidents here follow a similar warning issued less than two months ago about a dangerous batch of heroin circulating in the Lowell area, where six non-fatal overdoses were reported between March 16 and 18. Those victims also were revived with Narcan.
Merridith O’Leary, director of public health in Northampton, said she learned of the local overdoses about 9 p.m. April 29 from the city’s emergency management director. O’Leary began alerting others in the network, including Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, Cooley Dickinson Hospital and first responders. “Cooley Dickinson then reached out internally throughout all Hampshire County so that they would be on alert,” she said. “Within about 10 minutes we really had the county covered.”
It was the first time that the extensive outreach occurred so quickly, according to O’Leary. It likely won’t be the last time that such a response is needed.
Northampton Police reported earlier this year that the number of overdoses in the city more than tripled from 2015 to 2016, when 51 calls were received. Seven victims died in Northampton last year, up from none in 2015, according to police.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health estimates that there were nearly 2,000 opioid-related overdoses deaths throughout the state in 2016. A comprehensive state law enacted last year limits first-time prescriptions of opiate painkillers to seven days and requires clinicians to use the new online Massachusetts Prescription Awareness Tool to check the history of patients.
However, Sullivan said earlier this month that those new policies have resulted in some addicts turning from prescription opiates to street drugs such as heroin. “It’s the unintended consequence of regulation,” he said. “It’s a long-term investment. We’re going to have this problem for a very, very long time.”
The state has been effective in equipping first responders with the overdose-reversal drug naloxone — most commonly known by the brand name Narcan, a nasal spray — at discounted prices produced by a bulk purchasing program. All Northampton police officers carry Narcan, and the city’s Fire Rescue department also is well-equipped, according to John Garriepy, deputy chief of emergency medical services. “I carry bottles of the stuff,” he said.
The Hampshire HOPE coalition brings together a host of health, education, social service, law enforcement and other first-responder agencies to provide education about opioid abuse and raise awareness of resources available for addicts and their families. It is also working on coordinating more training about the use of Narcan.
The battle against the scourge of opioid addiction promises to be protracted. At least officials in Northampton learned three weekends ago that they have a network in place to hold their own in the skirmishes along the way.
This editorial first ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, May — 2017.