Bexar County allocated $47,000 of its settlement from a lawsuit against opioid distributors and manufacturers to pay for nearly 2,000 doses of Narcan, a treatment that can reverse opioid overdoses.
Most on-duty deputy sheriffs, who have been trained to administer the life-saving drug, will carry the doses in their pockets or in their vehicles, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said Friday at a press conference.
“Wherever you find Bexar County deputies, you will absolutely find Narcan not too far away and the training that goes along with it,” said Salazar, who said this supply will likely last about 20 months.
Last year, patrol deputies administered 51 doses of the nasal spray across Bexar County, he said. An additional 10 were administered in the jail and two in the Bexar County Courthouse.
“We took it on [in 2018] as almost a novelty but then we soon realized the value in it … as our deputies began coming into contact with folks that were suffering from the effects of opiates,” Salazar said. Narcan doses are now “standard issue” for deputies.
Narcan, the brand name for the drug naloxone, should be administered as soon as an opioid overdose has occurred or is suspected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In response to the growing crisis of heroin, fentanyl and other opioid overdoses, law enforcement agencies across the country have started to issue Narcan doses to officers because they often arrive at incidents where the treatment is needed long before paramedics.
“More Narcan in the hands of deputies means more lives saved because it reverses the effects of an overdose within minutes,” Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai said.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner recently reported that 2021 saw more than 500 drug overdose deaths, a 19% increase from 2020.
Receiving a dose of naxolone is often the first step to recovery, said Bexar County Preventative Health Director Andrea Guerrero-Guajardo. “People are five times more likely to seek treatment when they encounter harm reduction interventions than just by abstinence alone.”
Harm reduction services are those that aim to reduce negative health consequences associated with drug use such as overdose, disease and infection. Examples include needle exchange programs and distributing safe injection kits.
“I’m confident that funding and supporting these appropriate public health measures will save lives and create lasting impact for people in their county,” Guerrero-Guajardo said.
Law enforcement and paramedics should have access to Narcan, but they are not always called to the scene of an overdose, said Madelein Santibáñez, director of Corazón San Antonio‘s Harm Reduction Center.
Last year, the nonprofit’s clients reported observing or experiencing over 1,000 overdoses, Santibáñez said, but “90% of [the clients] did not call EMS or police officers.”
That demonstrates the need to distribute Narcan to people living with addiction and the outreach workers who see them regularly, she said.
Corazón distributed nearly 7,300 doses of naxolone last year and saw 1,530 overdoses reversed because of distribution and training efforts.
“Through harm reduction, we have managed to get a lot of folks into detox, into treatment, and into housing,” Santibanez said.
Providing deputies with doses of Narcan was previously funded through UT Health San Antonio, which administers a federal harm reduction grant that funds programs statewide.
“Unfortunately, we’ve taken a reduction in funding over the past couple of years, about 47% of our budget, which is really difficult considering that overdose deaths have increased 35% over the past three years in Texas,” said Lisa Cleveland, professor at the UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing. “So there’s a real mismatch. … That’s why I’m so thrilled to see that Bexar County really took the initiative to earmark some of those settlement dollars.”
Cleveland is also the director of a program that provides training to first responders on the use of naloxone and has distributed nearly 700,000 doses throughout Texas since 2018.
The county sued more than 50 pharmaceutical companies who manufactured opioids in 2018, including Johnson & Johnson, but the company decided to settle in 2021 instead of going to trial in that lawsuit and another that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed on behalf of the state. The county will receive a total of about $12 million as part of the settlements and officials have pledged to use the money to prevent and treat drug addiction.
“A day like this is not really about us at all,” said Jennifer Sharpe Potter, vice president for research and a professor of psychiatry at UT Health San Antonio. “It’s about honoring the people whose lives have been lost because they did not have access to a life-saving intervention like naloxone.”
It’s unclear how the county will fund the next round of doses for deputies to carry, Salazar said, but it should become a permanent part of law enforcement training and budget.
“Later on down the road when this batch runs out, this [problem] is not going to go away,” he said. “We need to figure out … how are we going to get [Narcan] in the future.”