New Risk for Police in Opioid Crisis 05/27 09:29
BEL AIR, Md. (AP) -- As Cpl. Kevin Phillips pulled up to investigate a
suspected opioid overdose, paramedics were already at the Maryland home giving
a man a life-saving dose of the overdose reversal drug Narcan. Drugs were easy
to find: a package of heroin on the railing leading to a basement; another
batch on a shelf above a nightstand.
The deputy already had put on gloves and grabbed evidence baggies, his usual
routine for canvassing a house. He swept the first package from the railing
into a bag and sealed it; then a torn Crayola crayon box went from the
nightstand into a bag of its own. Inside that basement nightstand: even more
bags, but nothing that looked like drugs.
Then -- moments after the man being treated by paramedics came to -- the
"My face felt like it was burning. I felt extremely light-headed. I felt
like I was getting dizzy," he said. "I stood there for two seconds and thought,
'Oh my God, I didn't just get exposed to something.' I just kept thinking about
Carfentanil came to mind because just hours earlier, Phillips' boss, Harford
County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, sent an email to deputies saying the synthetic
opioid so powerful that it's used to tranquilize elephants had, for the first
time ever, showed up in a toxicology report from a fatal overdose in the
county. The sheriff had urged everyone to use extra caution when responding to
Carfentanil and fentanyl are driving forces in the most deadly drug epidemic
the United States has ever seen. Because of their potency, it's not just
addicts who are increasingly at risk -- it's those tasked with saving lives and
investigating the illegal trade. Police departments across the U.S. are arming
officers with the opioid antidote Narcan. Now, some first responders have had
to use it on colleagues, or themselves.
The paramedic who administered Phillips' Narcan on May 19 started feeling
sick herself soon after; she didn't need Narcan but was treated for exposure to
Earlier this month, an Ohio officer overdosed in a police station after
brushing off with a bare hand a trace of white powder left from a drug scene.
Like Phillips, he was revived after several doses of Narcan. Last fall, 11 SWAT
officers in Hartford, Connecticut, were sickened after a flash-bang grenade
sent particles of heroin and fentanyl airborne.
Phillips' overdose was eye-opening for his department, Gahler said. Before
then, deputies didn't have a protocol for overdose scenes; many showed up
without any protective gear.
Gahler has since spent $5,000 for 100 kits that include a protective suit,
booties, gloves, and face masks. Carfentanil can be absorbed through the skin
and easily inhaled, and a single particle is so powerful that simply touching
it can cause an overdose, Gahler said. Additional gear will be distributed to
investigators tasked with cataloguing overdose scenes -- heavy-duty gloves and
more robust suits.
Gahler said 37 people have died so far this year from overdoses in his
county, which is between Baltimore and Philadelphia. The county has received
toxicology reports on 19 of those cases, and each showed signs of synthetic
"This is all a game-changer for us in law enforcement," Gahler said. "We are
going to have to re-evaluate daily what we're doing. We are feeling our way
through this every single day ... we're dealing with something that's out of
our realm. I don't want to lose a deputy ever, but especially not to something
the size of a grain of salt."
Other changes for Harford deputies include carrying bigger doses of Narcan
-- four milligrams instead of single-milligram doses. Because synthetic opioids
are so potent, more of the antidote is necessary to reverse an overdose.
Deputies have also been instructed not to try to field test drugs from overdose
scenes; instead, they send it to a lab.
Todd Edwards, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in
Baltimore, said drug users and officers are encountering fentanyl and
carfentanil because the substances can be easily ordered over the internet, and
dealers only need to mix a tiny amount into a batch of heroin in order to
significantly stretch their supply.
Edwards said the DEA is trying to spread the word about fentanyl,
carfentanil and something called "gray death," which is a mixture of both, plus
heroin and other substances. Edwards said agents are working with medical
examiners' offices, police and community organizations to increase awareness.
But because of the scope of the problem, it's a struggle.
Despite the warnings, Phillips was shocked by the power of the poison he was
"Even though I did the same thing on this call that I'd done on 100 other
calls, and all those other times I was fine, this time I wasn't," he said.