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'Overdose is reversible, death is not': Palm Beach sheriff urged to let deputies carry Narcan

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Advocates are trying to convince Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to equip deputies with Narcan. His office says deputies don't carry the anti-overdose drug over liability concerns.

A new wave of opioid deaths, fueled by fentanyl, is raising old fears in Palm Beach County. Meantime, sheriff's office policy on naloxone is an outlier in the state.

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 with the same time last year. With that jump has come more intense community pressure on sheriff's deputies to carry naloxone, the emergency medicine that reverses opioid overdoses.

The sheriff's office 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 sheriff's office executive office in Palm Beach Gardens. The demonstrators hoped to convince Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to equip his deputies with Narcan, the brand for a nasal spray version of naloxone. So far, ththose eir 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.”

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Wilkine Brutus
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Kielian and other advocates recently sent a letter to the sheriff's office asking for deputies to carry Narcan. According to the Florida Department of Health , a new wave of overdoses 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 (degree) in nursing in August,” Kielian added. "We are the parents who have lost people. We have parents whose loved ones are suffering addiction .”

Justin Kunzelman is co-founder of Rebel Recovery Florida, a nonprofit 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 providing naloxone to all first responders 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 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 destigmatizing drug users and equipping first responders with naloxone should be seen as part of a broader, life-saving intervention plan in a years-long public health crisis.

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. Law enforcement in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Orange and Hernando are also among the agencies to carry the antidote.

“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.”

Dr. Marc Scholsser, an addiction medicine physician, 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.”

“One of the benefits of naloxone is that there really aren't any adverse side effects,” said Scholsser, who has helped develop opioid response programs at the Health Care District of Palm Beach County.

"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. So, it is just a much more powerful medication that causes many more overdoses and , unfortunately , fatal overdoses."

Law enforcement officers 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 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 sheriff's office 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 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, the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office has said deputies don't carry Narcan because paramedics arrive first to a suspected overdose scene. When asked for more evidence about that ass rtion, 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 questions.

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office 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.

Officers 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 vict ms overwhelmed local morgues and hospitals.

“Overdoses are reversible, " said Kielian, with Southeast Florida Recovery Advocates, "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.”  

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Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’ s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.