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US senator pushes Opioid Crisis Response Act

The bill would expand a naloxone grant program, authorize a grant to teach post-overdose treatment and authorize funding for technology to screen for deadly drugs


By Bethany Bump
Times Union

COLONIE, N.Y.  — As a deadly surge in fentanyl places users and even first responders at risk, Congress is about to address the most comprehensive legislative response to the opioid epidemic to date.

Flanked by Colonie police officers and paramedics, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer explained that the Opioid Crisis Response Act would, among other things, help fund technology that allows local first responders to screen substances at the scene of an overdose for deadly synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer explained that the Opioid Crisis Response Act would help fund technology that allows responders to screen substances for deadly synthetic opioids. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer explained that the Opioid Crisis Response Act would help fund technology that allows responders to screen substances for deadly synthetic opioids. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

That's a growing concern for first responders, local officials said. Synthetic opioids are on the rise nationwide, and were the fastest-growing drug category to contribute to overdose deaths in 2017, according to new federal estimates.

"First responders like the ones here today are usually the first ones on the scene when a person overdoses, and their quick actions are often the difference between life and death," Schumer said. "They need and deserve all the support Congress can give them so that they can effectively and safely do their jobs."

The Senate will be considering the bill in the coming weeks, the Democrat said. It has bipartisan support, and is one of the most comprehensive legislative responses to the opioid epidemic to date, focusing on prevention, treatment and recovery as well as law enforcement support.

But advocates and workers in the field worry it still does not come with enough funding to truly put a dent in the nation's drug epidemic, which now has a death toll higher than the mortality caused by HIV/AIDS, car crashes and gun deaths at their annual peaks. The U.S. hit a record high 72,000 drug deaths last year, with more than two-thirds of them caused by opioids.

Schumer touted three specific provisions from the federal opioid bill he says would benefit the Capital Region.

One would expand a grant program that enables first responders to administer the overdose-reversal drug Narcan at the scene of an opioid overdose. A number of area police agencies and emergency medical services already carry the drug, but rely on grants and other funding streams to stock it and provide training.

Another provision would authorize a grant program to educate officials on how best to administer treatment after an overdose, and how to support and care for patients in recovery from addiction. Mass shortages of beds and providers has resulted in long wait lists for people looking to get into treatment programs.

The final provision would authorize additional funding for first responders to purchase technology, including mass spectrometers and portable scanning devices, to screen for drugs such as fentanyl that are deadly to even touch.

Albany County currently has two mass spectrometers — a large unit it bought for the airport during the "white powder" scare following 9/11, and a smaller one purchased last year after a fentanyl scare in Green Island, according to Sheriff Craig Apple.

In that case, Green Island's police chief and one of his officers had responded to a Dunkin' Donuts, where a person had overdosed on heroin in the bathroom. As they entered the scene, they began to feel numb and had to be hospitalized. That's when they learned they had been exposed to fentanyl, which was laced into the man's heroin.

"We see a white powder, we don't know if it's Johnson & Johnson baby powder or if it's a fentanyl," Apple said. "These folks are responding to these calls to save a life, and they sometimes put their own safety at risk."

Just two milligrams of fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, can be deadly.

Originally used as an anesthetic and to treat end-stage cancer pain, illicit use of the drug has soared in recent years in response to demand for more powerful drugs. Much of it of it is coming via the mail from China, according to experts, and some is smuggled over the Mexican border.

Copyright 2018 Times Union

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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