$17,000 grant from Berkshire DA's office to fund naloxone program

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PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire County District Attorney's office has provided at $17,000 grant in an effort to stem the escalating tide of opioid overdoses throughout the county.

During a meeting at The Eagle on Monday, District Attorney David F. Capeless said the money has been provided to Berkshire Health Systems to stock its emergency departments with up to 400 doses of the emergency overdose medication Narcan.

Those doses will be provided to victims, their families or significant others to have on hand in case of a future overdose.

"The challenge has been getting that product available where it needs to be," said John Rogers, vice president and general counsel of BHS.

The distribution of Narcan through emergency rooms is an additional layer of access to the medication, which also is available through pharmacies, social service agencies and is carried by first responders.

The overdose epidemic in Berkshire County has increased about five-fold since 2011, Rogers said, and has doubled in the past year, according to Rogers.

Between 2011 and 2014, county emergency departments typically saw between 40 to 60 overdoses per year. That number jumped to 157 in 2015 and, Rogers said, based on data from the first quarter of 2016, the county's emergency departments can expect to see more than 300 overdoses this year.

Rogers said as demand for Narcan, also known by its chemical name, naloxone, has risen nationwide in concert with opioid abuse and overdoses — and, so too, has the cost.

Narcan can cost between $50 and $60 per dose, he said, and this grant will provide between 300 and 400 doses, "Which will make a dent of some size in the overall problem."

Dr. Ronald Hayden, director of emergency medicine at BHS, equated having Narcan on hand to public emergency defibrillators and epi-pens to be used as emergency life-saving measures that can be administered by a layperson while help is en route.

Capeless dismissed the notion that Narcan, which reverses the effects of an overdose, as somehow enabling users to quickly recover, only to immediately return to opioid use.

"That's an argument that's put forward by people who are not involved, either in administering Narcan, or getting it," he said. "It's not a sentiment that comes out of the drug-using community."

"It arises out of an antiquated attitude toward those who are caught in addiction," Capeless said. "The idea being ... we shouldn't be helping them. As if allowing them to die is OK."

Rogers described the reaction to Narcan in an overdose victim as "very painful and agonizing," including acute symptoms of withdrawal in some cases.

Capeless said part of removing the stigma of addiction and opioid abuse requires raising awareness, "so that people understand how widespread the problem is."

"Because it's always been, 'them' or that kind of attitude," Capeless said. "Unfortunately, it just affects everybody."

He said many families feel alone when they are grappling with a loved one's addiction.

"Not just in the sense they feel non-empowered to do something, but more importantly that they feel like, 'We're different from everybody else and, therefore, we can't share this,' not realizing there are so many others like them," Capeless said.

"It affects all sorts of families," he said. "That's the sad thing."

"It's not easy or well-received at times to pull the rock back and say, 'This is a horrible situation and look who it affects,' " Capeless said.

Capeless said his office also is focusing on education and prevention efforts, beginning in county schools as early as third grade.

He said educators won't be discussing drugs, tobacco or alcohol with the youngest students, but instead will be attempting to instill coping skills so they can make informed decisions when they are older and confronted with those types of choices.

"It's far better to keep people from falling in the river, than trying to pull them out later on," Rogers said.

Capeless attributed the spike in opioid and heroin abuse to years of over-prescription of painkillers.

Once people have developed a dependance on painkillers, they often move to heroin, which is a cheaper alternative, he said.

Hayden said it's not always a long-term heroin user who succumbs to an overdose, many who die are first-time users.

With the grant in place, when an overdose victim is admitted to an emergency department, they are offered assistance and resources, including a kit, containing two doses of Narcan and one-on-one instruction in how to administer it.

Patients who are reluctant to accept assistance or treatment are encouraged to provide the Narcan to a family member or loved one to use in the event of a future overdose while first responders are contacted.

"Getting this Narcan out into the community will help, we think, save lives," Rogers said.

Contact Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249.


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