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'Overdose is reversible, death is not': residents urge Palm Beach County Sheriff to carry Narcan

Narcan photo by Wilkine Brutus.jpg
Wilkine Brutus
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WLRN
Rebel Recovery Florida has large cabinet of Narcan Nasal Spray boxes. The active ingredient naloxone, is an emergency antidote that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. The FDA-approved medication is available without prescription.

A new wave of opioid deaths, often mixed with psychostimulants, is raising old fears in Palm Beach County. And now families are urging the sheriff's office to carry Narcan.

According to the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's office, drug overdose deaths in the county were up nearly 30 percent in the first two months of 2022 compared to the same time last year. With that jump has come more intense community pressure on Palm Beach County's sheriff's deputies to carry naloxone — the emergency medicine that reverses opioid overdoses.

PBSO’s policy is an outlier in the state. In late January, advocates and families who've lost loved ones to overdoses chanted “Carry Narcan, PBSO,” outside a PBSO executive office in Palm Beach Gardens. The residents hoped their protest would convince Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to equip his deputies with Narcan, the brand name for naloxone. So far, their pleas haven't worked.

“My son suffers from addiction. It first showed itself when he was like 12 or 13 years old,” said Maureen Kielian, who leads Southeast Florida Recovery Advocates, which helped organize the rally. “Today he's 30, and I started advocating back then about the whole overprescribing of the opioids that was happening at that time.”

Kielian and other advocates sent a letter to PBSO recently, asking for deputies to carry Narcan. According to the Florida Department of Health (FDOH), the new wave of drug overdoses being seen in Palm Beach County and nationally have been linked to fentanyl-contaminated psychostimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Kielian says if her son overdosed, she'd want him to be revived.

"He is today in long-term recovery. He is enrolled back in school and graduating with his bachelor's in nursing in August,” Kielian added. "We are the parents who have lost people. We have parents whose loved ones are suffering addiction.”

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Justin Kunzelman is co-founder of Rebel Recovery Florida, a non-profit needle-exchange program approved unanimously by Palm Beach County commissioners in 2020. Some of his staff members attended the rally. Kunzelman, who normally stays out of public protests, says equipping all first responders with naloxone shouldn't be a political tussle.

“You don't piss off parents whose children have died. That's not a community that you want to have issues with, politically or otherwise,” said Kunzelman. “The sheriff's an elected official. Enough of the community has experienced overdose at this point to be like, 'bro, what do you mean you don't carry naloxone?' Like, enough.” 

Kunzelman said the underlying conditions behind the uptick in drug overdoses still requires a multifaceted, community-based response. He said there are many root causes, such as housing issues and unemployment, that have led people deeper into addiction.

He said de-stigmatizing drug users and equipping all first responders in the county with naloxone should be seen as part of a broader, life-saving intervention plan in a years-long public health crisis.

“It's crazy to think that the reason for not carrying the medicine is that you're afraid you'll be liable," Kunzelman said. But the alternative is that somebody dies.”

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw declined an interview request but a spokesperson for the sheriff's office said deputies don’t carry naloxone because of concerns over liability.

Nearly two-thirds of the sheriff's offices in the state do issue Narcan to their deputies and train them how to administer it, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That includes neighboring Broward and Martin Counties.

“One of the benefits of naloxone is that there really aren't any adverse side effects,” said Dr. Marc Scholsser, an addiction medicine physician. He’s helped develop opioid response programs at the Health Care District of Palm Beach County.

Dr. Scholsser says any delay in treatment is detrimental to the patient because an overdose restricts oxygen to the brain. He said naloxone will not hurt a patient “even if someone isn't overdosing on an opioid and you administer naloxone.”

"The fentanyl that we use in the operating room for an anesthetic is pharmaceutical grade. The fentanyl that is on the street and being used is just illicit, and it is somewhere between 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine,” said Scholsser. "So it is just a much more powerful medication that causes many more overdoses and, unfortunately, fatal overdoses."

Police are protected from liability by Florida law. Donald Jones, a constitutional and criminal law professor at the University of Miami law school, said not carrying naloxone opens the window to needless deaths caused by potential delays in medical care.

“In many instances, the police see the opiate users as people who are engaging in a crime, “ said Jones. “And the more you think of them as criminals, the less you're thinking in terms of treatment.”

Jones says the PBSO's policy against deputies carrying naloxone is out of step with the Biden administration as well as the majority of sheriff's offices in the state.

In 2021 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded the most drug overdose deaths in a single year. More than 100,000 people died between May 2020 and April 2021 — "an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before," the study reported.

Over the past few years, het Palm Beach Sheriff's Office has said deputies don't carry Narcan because paramedics arrive first to a suspected overdose scene. When WLRN asked for more evidence about that assertion, a spokesperson for PBSO cited a 10-year old study but said it was no longer available. Palm Beach County Fire Rescue did not respond to our questions.

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, said its deputies and paramedics respond simultaneously to medical overdose calls. A spokesperson at the Delray Beach Police Department in Palm Beach County said officers there typically arrive before fire rescue.

Deputies in Delray Beach have been carrying naloxone since 2016 — when the city was at the epicenter of South Florida’s overdose epidemic. At the time, bodies of victims overwhelmed local morgues and hospitals.

“Overdoses are reversible," said Maureen Kielian. "Death is not reversible.”

Opioid addiction is often hiding in plain sight.

“I don't want any family to be that next family because addiction is everywhere, it's in your neighborhood, it's in your office building, it's everywhere,” Kielian said. “You can't see it because we tend to, as a society, hide it and stigmatize it. It's everywhere.”