Drug overdoses up, but fatalities down in NH

Officials believe greater access to Narcan and a new good Samaritan law have saved lives

By Max Sullivan
Portsmouth Herlad

HAMPTON, N.H. — Opioid-related fatalities are down in Hampton this year compared to 2015, and local officials believe public access to Narcan and the good Samaritan law enacted last year could be reasons for the decrease in deaths.

Opioid use, however, is up in Hampton, according to fire officials. Hampton Fire Chief Jameson Ayotte told selectmen this month that there were 31 calls for overdoses this year through July 31, 18 of which came in June and July. There were only 24 calls for overdoses in 2015 from January through July, he said.

Despite that increase, only one person has died of a suspected overdose in Hampton this year — Tara Eaton, 44, who died on L Street on April 9. There were five overdose deaths in Hampton by mid-July in 2015, the total for that year eventually reaching seven.

Hampton is one of several communities in New Hampshire impacted by what officials have called a statewide opioid “epidemic,” opioids including narcotics like heroin, oxycodone and fentanyl. Last year, 439 people died of opioid overdoses in the state.

Hampton EMS Officer Nate Denio said the availability of Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, may have led to fewer fatalities in town. Narcan became available for members of the general public in late 2014.

Denio also said more people might be calling 911 sooner because of the good Samaritan law, which shields those reporting overdoses from being charged with drug possession. The law was passed last year and will sunset in three years. It is meant to help New Hampshire recover from the drug epidemic.

Hampton firefighter Matt Newton believes 911 calls are being made sooner by those present when an overdose occurs because of the law.

“I think people are starting to call a little bit sooner,” Newton said. “The last people they want to see is the cops, so I think they’re propensity to call 911 might be a little less than normal people. But now that the law has changed things, I think that might have turned (hesitation to call) around a little bit.”

One former narcotic user now in recovery, Ryan Brown, 26, of Seabrook, said he stopped using heroin before the law went into effect last year. However, he said he probably would have been hesitant to call 911 if he were present when a friend overdosed while the two were using together.

“I would be nervous to call and pick up a charge,” said Brown, who graduated from Drug Court in Brentwood Monday. “I probably still would call but I would have had to think more about it.”

While Hampton is seeing a downtrend in fatalities, many communities statewide are experiencing the opposite. James Vara, the governor’s advisor on addiction and behavioral health and commonly referred to as the “drug czar,” said officials are projecting fatalities to increase beyond the number from last year. He said he personally has not heard from community leaders in the state who believe the good Samaritan law has led to fewer deaths.

In the Tri-City Region, Wentworth-Douglas has had 80 patients brought by ambulance where Narcan was administered by first-responders before the patient arrived at the hospital, according to Dover Assistant Fire Chief Paul Haas. Less than five of those resulted in fatalities, he said.

In 2015, there were 97 of those cases the whole year, and three of those resulted in fatalities.

“There clearly is an increase this year,” said Haas. “We’re at 80 and we’re not even three quarters of the year.”

Some communities have noticed a downtrend in calls for heroin, though. In Exeter, Fire Chief Brian Comeau said his department has been responding to fewer overdose calls. Last year, he said it felt like the calls came every week, while only a handful a month have come in 2016.

If Narcan is a major reason for the decline in overdose fatalities in Hampton, Denio said it is still important for Narcan not to be treated as sole solution to the current drug problem. He is one of several officials who have said that addiction is a problem that manifests in an addict’s life well before a 911 call is needed. He believes measures like education and treatment need to be viewed as greater solutions than Narcan.

“The warning we had was not to let Narcan make people complacent, that it wasn’t the answer to the drug problem,” Denio said. “That’s how I still feel.”

Copyright 2016 Portsmouth Herald

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