After an increase in drug-related deaths, the Nueces County Hospital District is partnering with area law enforcement and school districts to provide training and resources to prevent deaths caused by opioid overdoses.

In a campaign to combat the growing number of fentanyl overdoses in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state this month to deliver 20,000 doses of the overdose-reversing medication, naloxone, more commonly known as Narcan, to all 254 counties in Texas. The doses will be distributed to sheriff offices in each county based on the county’s population and size, the governor’s office said in a news release.

Drug overdose deaths in Nueces County

In 2022, there were 104 drug overdose deaths in Nueces County, according to medical examiner data. Of those deaths, 46.1% were fentanyl-related.

Drug-related deaths are increasing in Nueces County, with 97 deaths in 2021, 70 in 2020, and only 45 in 2019. Over the last three years, deaths caused by accidental drug overdoses increased by 131.1%.

Opioid overdoses have increased statewide and nationally, said Dr. Xavier Gonzales, director of mental health for the Nueces County Hospital District.

The county established the Opioid Task Force in 2019, but efforts slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gonzales restarted the task force, including training with PAARI, when he became director in 2022.

One training was offered to a chief deputy of the sheriff’s office, Corpus Christi Police Department assistant chiefs, constables and district judges.

“It was a good education experience to allow these law enforcement leaders to start paving the path for putting in these principles and saying, ‘Let’s do something different when it comes to substance abuse disorder,” Gonzales said.

What is Narcan?

Narcan, or naloxone, is a medication that reverses an opioid overdose by blocking the effects of opiates on the brain and restoring breathing to the person overdosing.

The drug is currently available for purchase without a prescription.

Over the past year, the Nueces County Hospital District has partnered with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative to train and distribute Narcan to law enforcement in Nueces County.

PAARI is a nonprofit organization that helps law enforcement agencies nationwide create non-arrest pathways to treatment and recovery, including technical assistance, guidance and training.

More than 250 individual officers and civilians in Nueces County attended a PAARI training to learn how to use the potentially life-saving medication to help reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

PAARI invited area organizations to the training after learning that the Nueces County Hospital District, which the nonprofit was working with, needed access to and training for Narcan, said Brittney Garrett, director of outreach and training at PAARI.

Nueces County and Corpus Christi law enforcement officers, public health officials, drug abuse recovery groups, county staff and the Corpus Christi Independent School District were among those trained by PAARI.

Training for law enforcement

Before completing the training, 60% of law enforcement officers said they had previously arrived on the scene of an overdose, and only 39% who responded to the scene carried Narcan, according to PAARI.

Roland Martinez Jr., a Nueces County patrol deputy, said the training allowed law enforcement officers to become familiar with the over-the-counter medication as an extra tool when responding to overdoses.

“I think the comfortability was already there, but the training’s purpose was more for familiarization to lessen anxiety in the future if somebody was to have to deal with it,” Martinez said.

After the training, 100% of the officers surveyed said they could comfortably administer Narcan, identify warning signs of an overdose and carry the medication while on duty.

“We see that as a big success,” Garrett said. “I think it’s that education and understanding the stigma behind engaging in the community when people are struggling with addiction. I think trainings like this are really just the first step in a larger discussion.”

For deputies like Martinez, knowing that people who administer Narcan to save someone from an overdose will face no liability in Texas is a relief.

“There’s not a downside if you administer it to someone who is not, in fact, experiencing an opioid or fentanyl overdose,” Nueces County Sheriff J.C. Hooper said. “I think that’s important because you don’t want to put your first responders in a liability-heavy situation of being a medical practitioner.”

What are the limitations?

Part of the battle against drug overdoses lies in how law enforcement approaches those struggling with addiction, Gonzales said. Typically, the first responder in an overdose situation in Nueces County would be law enforcement.

“With that in mind, we decided we really got to work on the stigma and encourage our officers to use the knowledge that they had to try something else,” Gonzales said. “Just going and arresting individuals because of their drug use wasn’t stopping the use of drugs, and it was really tying up the officers from being able to handle other things.”

Another hurdle is the availability of the overdose-reversing medication. The county received approximately 100 boxes of the medication from PAARI and purchased an additional 200 using grants, but it’s unclear how law enforcement and schools will supply their staffs in the future.

Though available over the counter at most pharmacies, naloxone’s price tag can be deterring. Legislation could make the medication more accessible, similar to automated external defibrillators, Gonzales said.

What’s next?

Hooper and Gonzales hope to provide training and doses of Narcan to school districts within Nueces County. Bishop and Robstown ISDs have some doses, Gonzales said.

“At this point, we don’t have any numbers to really tell us which schools may be at higher risk," he said. "If we reflect upon Hays County and the high school kids that have passed away there, we just don’t want that to happen here.”

Hays Consolidated Independent School District in central Texas has experienced a spike in teen overdoses, with at least five fentanyl-related deaths since 2022, according to the district’s website.

The school district partnered with local law enforcement to launch a fentanyl awareness campaign.

“Just put yourself in the shoes of a high school student,” Gonzales said. “They might go to a party and see a colorful pill and think, ‘No big deal. It’s a colorful pill.’ But if it’s 100% fentanyl and they’ve never touched it before, or anything similar, it’s not going to be good for them.

“As far as drugs and fentanyl, it’s not going to go away,” Gonzales added. “But what can we do to keep people safe?”

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