Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato has directed the county's police departments to report every drug overdose in an effort to stem a rise in heroin abuse by tracking the drug's damaging effects.
The directive, which takes effect this month, follows the prosecutor labeling heroin use a "crisis" facing the county shortly after he took office in April. One state legislator says it is a move other counties should follow.
Nine Ocean County residents died within in eight days last month due to heroin overdoses. So far, 42 people have died this year from drug overdoses. That's up from the typical 50 deaths in an entire year, authorities have said.
In response, Coronato is asking police to alert his investigators of any drug overdoses, whether the victims live or die. He said his directive will help fill in gaps in reporting under hospital confidentiality laws.
"Because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), it is difficult to properly determine overdoses in towns where the victims are taken to the hospital and survive, or survive at home," Coronato said.
The directive states the responding police department is to contact the Prosecutor's Office and the Sheriff's Department Criminalistics Investigation Unit immediately upon learning of a possible drug overdose in which death is imminent, likely or has occurred.
A representative from each agency will be dispatched to the scene of the incident, the directive states. Whether the victim dies at the scene or is taken to the hospital for lifesaving measures, the directive requires the scene be secured pending the arrival of the Prosecutor's Office and CIU personnel.
For possible overdoses in which a victim does not die, the police who respond to the call are required to immediately contact a member of the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office Special Operations Group. This will assist in the development of a countywide database through which police can identify and target drug distribution points to help combat drug sales throughout the county, the directive states.
"When we say OD, we're typically talking about death, but we're not getting good, solid numbers on the amount of overdose survivors, and right now we're averaging about one overdose each day in the county," Coronato said.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said the move to compile overdose statistics is something that should be done around the state.
Van Drew pointed to an increasing heroin problem in Cape May County. Those authorities should be able to track overdose statistics regardless of HIPAA patient privacy guidelines, he said.
"When those statistics are assembled, I think it will be frightening. In certain ways and certain places, we're absolutely losing the war on drugs, and we have to recognize that and do something about that, and a big part of that is obtaining statistical data," Van Drew said.
Donna Sellman, spokeswoman for Southern Ocean Medical Center in Stafford Township, said any patient who comes to the hospital, even if it is a situation involving a drug overdose, has the same privacy rights. The hospital does not provide details to the police about treatment or what the patient overdosed on, Sellman said.
"The basic information we can share in any situation is we can let them know if the patient is critical, stable or that they have been discharged. These are guidelines that all hospitals in the state follow under the New Jersey Hospital Association," Sellman said.
Lower Township Mayor Michael Beck said heroin has become a major problem in Cape May County. Last year, his town established an in-house Substance Abuse Response Team, Beck said. The team of township officials was formed to begin collecting data and formulating a response to heroin and prescription drug abuse.
"This is not just a Lower Township problem, this is a problem for all of New Jersey," Beck said.
Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said his office also has sent its detectives to the scenes of overdoses in the county for some time now.
"I don't think I know if we have been doing it so much for data as we've been doing it to be aggressive on people selling the drug and hurting people," Taylor said.
He said that last weekend there were three nonfatal heroin overdoses and two weekends ago there was a fatal heroin overdose.
"We have a policy in effect that during the course of an investigation of an overdose, we attempt to find out and track where the drugs are coming from to make an arrest and prosecute," he said.
In Little Egg Harbor Township, it has become all too common for police officers to respond to calls for drug overdoses - particularly heroin - and it's only gotten worse over the past two years, police Chief Richard Buzby said.
A heroin overdose usually happens in a bathroom, Buzby said, and it's usually a family member who breaks down a door to find their loved one with a needle hanging out of their arm.
"To walk in and find something like that is like a scene out of a horror movie. I know the officers are frustrated they don't have the resources to go after it the way they want to, and I'm frustrated," Buzby said.
But aside from anecdotal information, members of law enforcement do not know the extent of the heroin overdose problem, Buzby said.
"HIPAA can be a good thing, but with this issue it has created problems," he said.
As far as Coronato's directive, Buzby said, every additional responsibility an officer is assigned requires training and time when it is implemented on the job.
"Sometimes we don't agree with certain directives, but with something like this, it is absolutely necessary; we don't have a choice but to do this. Anecdotal data is not going to work; we need hard data on overdoses," Buzby said.
He said a township police officer recently came into the police station holding up a bag with a needle he found in the women's bathroom during court.
"They're in the bathroom at municipal court shooting up. I can't think of better reasons why this crisis has to be addressed," he said.
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