WHITMAN — Selectmen heard some sobering news from police and fire officials Tuesday, Aug. 18 regarding the town’s — and region’s — efforts to combat increasing numbers of heroin/opioid overdoses.
Selectmen also supported a $24,000 appropriation via a warrant article for the 2016 annual Town Meeting to support the Whitman Food Pantry’s need for a larger space. [See related story, page 9]
“We should be taking care of each other,” said Selectman Brian Bezanson. He and Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski also commended Police Chief Scott Benton for his work “on the front lines” of the overdose problem.
“We have to attack this from all angles,” Bezanson said.
“It’s almost like we’re chasing our tail,” added Selectman Dan Salvucci. “We can’t stop it from coming in and we’re just trying to help people that are caught in this web.”
Benton had reported that overdoses in Whitman since Jan. 1 are up to 39, with seven deaths. Fire Chief Timothy Grenno said his department has responded to 45 overdose calls, with Narcan administered 42 times. He said the different number reflects Whitman Fire’s responses to mutual aid calls from East Bridgewater and Abington as well as Whitman.
Grenno added he had just received a bulletin from the National Hotline out of North Carolina advising heroin is now being laced with clenbuterol, approved only for veterinary use to treat respiratory issues. Narcan does not work on those types of drugs, Grenno reported.
“It’s coming our way,” he said.
Last month there were 17 confirmed cases in North Carolina.
“If it was as easy as driving up to somebody and throwing them in the back of the car and ending this problem, we would do it,” Benton said. “It’s not that easy.”
Both chiefs discussed the four overdoses, including one death, their departments responded to on Sunday, Aug. 9 as a reflection of the problem.
Three involved unconscious juveniles sitting in a single vehicle parked along South Avenue and the other, which resulted in a fatality seven days later in the hospital, was called in two and a half hours later, Benton said.
Grenno said four firefighters responded, finding two persons in critical condition and the third “probably 15 seconds away from cardiac arrest and dying.”
Narcan was administered nasally to two patients and via an “IO” — a “drill gun” which inserts Narcan directly into femoral bone marrow. One responded with the typical vomiting but the others remained critical as they were transported to the hospital.
Both Benton and Grenno said their personnel have responded to overdoses involving people they know.
“Even though this is your job, it certainly doesn’t mean that this is not an emotional [situation that] has a personal impact on first-responders,” Benton said, commending the police and fire departments’ professionalism in handling such calls.
“The majority of my guys were born and raised in Whitman and they know all these people,” Grenno said. “This epidemic is having a crushing toll on these guys.”
Grenno lauded the work of Lt. Al Cunningham and Firefighter/Paramedics Joe Kenealy, Matt Bush and Scott Figgins for their professionalism under difficult circumstances.
While the three-overdose call was being worked on Aug. 9, another call was received to which the department was not able to respond right away and a third call — an overdose victim in cardiac arrest — was later received.
“I wish that I had a solution to this,” Benton told Selectmen. “It could have been significantly higher [than seven deaths] if not for the quick response of the police and fire personnel, who administered Narcan and were able to save these people.”
Benton said Narcan is also being made available to athletic trainers at WHRHS in response to the “critical” opioid epidemic throughout the commonwealth.
“People could debate it, but it could be the parent or the aunt or the uncle of one of these student-athletes or students that goes down and you don’t want a bunch of people standing around going, ‘Oh, no!’ You want to have something you can do,” he said.
Whitman Police are members of the Brockton Mayor’s Opioid Overdose Coalition and the Whitman-Hanson Will Coalition on prevention measures, as well as the Whitman East Bridgewater (WEB) Task Force and partnership with the DEA regarding enforcement issues.
“We now seize the cell phones of overdose victims and try to identify who is supplying them with the heroin and go after the dealers,” Benton said, adding the decision was thoroughly discussed with the district attorney’s office. “Worse-case scenario, we give back a phone — maybe we save someone.”
He noted most heroin addicts are also addicted to opioid painkillers and the problem has an effect on other crime statistics.
Dr. Daniel Muse of Brockton Hospital has indicated that the medical profession must do a better job weaning patients from legitimately prescribed opioid pain medications, according to Benton.
As of Aug. 16, the Police Department had received 7,433 calls for service this year — an increase of 1,281 over the same period last year, Benton said.
Year to-date, the Fire-Rescue Department has responded to 1,765 calls — an increase of 147 from last year, Grenno said. Of those, there were 200 occasions when firefighters were responding to simultaneous incidents.
“We can answer the first call, but the second call is where we have to rely on mutual aid and call-back personnel,” he said. “It’s not getting any better.”
Since July 31 the Fire Station has been empty 35 times due to multiple calls. Traffic accidents, cardiac emergencies and psychological calls are most numerous, according to Grenno.