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July 25, 2017

Texas county equips deputies with opioid defense gear

By St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronicle 

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — The Harris County Sheriff's Office is equipping deputies with protective gloves, respirators and anti-overdose nasal sprays to protect officers from accidental exposure to dangerous opioids.

The substances -- Fentanyl and Carfentanil - have ravaged other parts of the country and started to become more common in Harris County in recent months. 

Law enforcement agencies around the nation have become much more cautious about handling the substances after reports that officers were sickened by accidental exposure to the drugs.

Earlier this month, the Houston Police Department and officials from a host of other local law enforcement agencies said they would stop performing roadside tests of substances believed to be illicit drugs. 

In Houston, lab technicians at the Houston Forensic Science Center tested saw just one Fentanyl case in 2015. In 2016, that grew to 13 cases. This year, they have seen nine cases so far, (including one Carfentanil case,) said Ramit Plushnick-Masti, the agency's spokeswoman.

Pasadena police recently seized 8 kilograms of Fentanyl, leading that department to recently decide to suspend roadside drug testing. A few weeks ago, Houston police seized an additional three kilograms of the drugs.

Each dose requires just 2 milligrams of the substance, meaning the recent drug seizures would translate into more than 5.5 million doses of the drug, said Peter Stout, president of the Houston Forensic Science Center, which performs drug testing for the police department and some other local agencies.

The drugs have been implicated in at least 26 deaths since the start of 2016, said Tricia Bentley, spokeswoman for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science. That number may not include other deaths for which toxicology testing has not yet been completed, she said.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said his department was committed to doing "everything within our power" to protect deputies from the drugs.

Officials with the Harris County said deputies are also being trained on how to avoid exposure to the drugs.

"When Fentanyl and Carfentanil began showing up in Harris County, we knew we had to quickly distribute the antidote and protective gear to our deputies, in case they encounter these drugs in the field," he said, in a news release. "Deputies will also be able to administer the antidote to Harris County residents they encounter, who may have been exposed."

The sheriff's office purchased 264 doses of Narcan, a nasal spray used to treat opioid overdoses. Deputies are also receiving heavy-duty protective gloves to prevent the synthetic opioids from contacting the skin, and respirator masks, according to the release.

David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, said he wasn't aware of any of deputies becoming ill from exposure to opioids but nevertheless cheered the sheriff's office's decision to equip officers in case they were exposed to the drugs in the future.

"We deal with drugs and other substances all the time," Cuevas said. "It [reminds us] that we're susceptible to being exposed. By providing Narcan - it brings that heightened level of attention that there are products out there that can kill you."

Houston police received 196 doses of Narcan in February, said Kese Smith, an HPD spokesman. Those were given to officers in the Narcotics Division. 

"The department is looking for funding in the future for department-wide deployment of Narcan, but there's no current plan in place for that to occur," he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2017 Houston Chronicle


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