After repeated requests from Ocean County officials last month, Gov. Chris Christie's administration has issued a waiver allowing EMTs to administer the heroin antidote Narcan to drug overdose victims.
Late last year, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato announced he would work to arm all police officers in the county with Narcan as the number of drug overdose deaths continued to climb. But there was a roadblock for police officers who are also certified EMTs. They were not permitted to administer Narcan because of liability issues.
The waiver was necessary because Department of Health regulations did not provide for EMTs to administer the nasal spray naloxone, also known as Narcan.
Coronato began calling on the state Department of Health to issue waivers, allowing all EMTs, including police officers, to carry and administer the drug.
State Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd signed the waiver Thursday.
"I'm really glad that the commissioner went further and did the right thing to release this to all EMTS,” Coronato said. “It's a blessing that now all EMTS and police officers who are EMTS don't have to worry. Now what we can do is get the program out there and start saving lives.
So far this year, 17 people have died in Ocean County from drug overdoses. Last year there were 112 deaths, more than doubling the death toll of 53 in 2012.
Last month, the Ocean County Prosecutor's Officers conducted Narcan training for police officers from the county's 33 municipalities. Now, those officers will begin carrying Narcan in a week to 10 days, Coronato said.
Within 60 to 90 days, Coronato said he is hopeful that most of the police officers in the state will also be carrying Narcan, as he plans to share the program with other law enforcement agencies. The waiver affects more than 28,000 EMTs statewide.
Data from the the Office of the State Medical Examiner shows that drug-related fatal overdoses across the state increased to 1,294 in 2012, compared to 1,026 deaths in 2011.
“We want to encourage people to seek medical assistance when a drug overdose occurs,” Christie said in a statement Friday.
Christie said in a statement Friday that the waiver from the Department of Health is consistent with the Overdose Prevention Act he signed into law last year. That law provides immunity from civil and criminal liability for non-health care professionals who administer the medication in emergency situations.
Much like the guidelines that were rolled out last month for Ocean County police officers who will administer Narcan, EMTs must also complete training course approved by the Department of Health-and also maintain records of each time the drug is administered.
Surf City Councilman Peter Hartney, who also volunteers as an EMT and firefighter, had written to the Department of Health about the issue. On Friday said he didn't think the waiver would be signed this quickly, but he is relieved for the police officers in the borough's department who are also certified EMTs.
"But while I'm excited about the fact that the Department of Health granted the waiver, I am hoping that they act with equal speed in putting a training program together to administer Narcan for the 28,000 EMTs across the state," Hartney said.
Dr. Ken Lavelle, who trained Ocean County police officers last month to administer Narcan, said the issuance of the waiver is a win-win for police, EMTs and the public. Lavelle said it will take about a month before the program rolls out for EMTs to carry and administer Narcan.
The waiver will give ambulance squads all over the state the option of carrying Narcan as they are not required to carry the drug, Lavelle said.
EMTs who carry Narcan will participate in a similar doctor-lead training program as they do to use and carry an Epinephrine pen used during some allergic reactions, he said.
"It was one of those things that I knew it was going to happen. When they said they were going to let cops carry it, everyone thought, well how can you not let EMTs carry it? In the long-term this is best way to have this happen," he said.
Staff writer Anjalee Khemlani contributed to this report.
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