Fine mists of water sprayed the air Friday at the DuPage County Health Department during a training session for area police officers, in an effort to ensure 2013's record number of heroin overdose deaths isn't repeated.
The lesson was part of the department's DuPage Narcan Program, which puts the non-addictive drug Naloxone, or Narcan, in the hands of local police, allowing them to reverse the effects of an opiate overdose.
With a rising number of DuPage County heroin-related deaths in recent years, including 46 in 2013, the drug could be a valuable tool, said Health Department Executive Director Karen Ayala.
"These numbers are not nameless, nor are they faceless," she said. "Each one represents a life lost."
Police are often the first responders to the scene of a drug overdose, sometimes before ambulances, said County Coroner Richard Jorgensen. Those two or three minutes can be the difference between life and death, he said.
Essentially, those overdosing on heroin become so relaxed they fall asleep and stop breathing, according to Jorgensen. If first responders give the person a dose of Narcan before their brain dies, they can survive.
Since mid-November, the program has trained officers from 10 departments, as well as an additional 13 Friday.
The program's first participants, including those from the DuPage County Sheriff's Office, have successfully trained 364 officers and equipped them with two doses of Narcan each, according to the health department. They have been deployed since mid-January, while the additional estimated 541participants in the Jan. 21 and Feb. 21 sessions hit the streets in March and May, respectively.
Ayala said there haven't yet been any cases where Narcan has been used by the trainees.
She said the department's $40,000 investment has sufficiently funded the program, including the $16 individual doses of Narcan, through its most recent training session. The department was looking for partners in the medical community to continue it.
This represents one of many county government actions to address what officials call a growing epidemic, including the $100,000 education initiative "Be a Hero in DuPage." It is also the first county-wide application of a 2010 state law allowing nonmedical personnel to be trained to use the drug, Ayala said.
Jorgensen said DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin is working on language for a bill clarifying that trained responders using Narcan can't be held liable in a civil case.
Villa Park Police Chief and member of the DuPage Chiefs of Police Association Robert Pavelchik said the association already had a subcommittee devoted to the topic, but thought more needed to be done.
"We realized some time ago, especially with the assistance of the coroner, that this has been a problem we're not going to arrest our way out of," he said.
Jorgensen said that attitude, along with the treatment of addiction as a medical problem instead of a punishable offense, represented a different mindset than that found in the county 15 to 20 years ago. By keeping people alive, he said, it keeps the chance for recovery alive.
"One of the people that we work with says that 'Dying of an overdose is not the first step for recovery or treatment,'" Jorgensen said. "You have to understand that this is a medical disease, this is an addiction, this is a serious medical problem and we all know people who have either died of drug or alcohol problems and also recovered from drug or alcohol problems. These people are not lost to society."
Narcan fast facts
• Can be used as a nasal spray or shot
• Usually works within two to five minutes, immediately beginning withdrawal symptoms
• Typically wears off in 30 to 90 minutes
• People who have received Narcan in an overdose situation are more likely to seek treatment
• Those who call 911 when there has been an overdose are immune to criminal charges for drug possession under the Good Samaritan Overdose Law
• Nonmedical personnel, including civilians, can be trained in the use of Narcan
By the numbers
DuPage Narcan Program has trained 23 police departments across three sessions for a total of 1,100 potential trainees. There are plans to train an additional 10 departments and public defender groups for a total of 1,244 officers by May.
The health department is seeking additional funding to continue the program.
Already trained: Addison, Bartlett, Bloomingdale, Burr Ridge, Downers Grove, Darien, DuPage County Sheriff's Office, Elmhurst, Glendale Heights, Glen Ellyn, Hanover Park, Hinsdale, Lombard, Roselle, Villa Park, Warrenville, West Chicago, Westmont, Wheaton, Willowbrook, Wood Dale, Woodridge
To be trained: Bensenville, Itasca, Lemont, Oak Brook
Other municipalities: Naperville, Carol Stream, Lisle, Oakbrook Terrace, Clarendon Hills, Winfield (Participant in alternate opioid reduction program)