Sheriff’s deputies around the county are now equipped to hand out naloxone to anyone who may need the medication to reverse an opioid overdose, officials announced Monday.
In addition to the Sheriff’s Department, the new distribution program, launched last month, includes police departments in Chula Vista and National City, as well as the county Probation Department and county Parks and Recreation.
The Sheriff’s Department also has made the naloxone kits available to the public — no questions asked — at its stations and substations, Sheriff Kelly Martinez said at a news conference Monday.
The effort is the latest in the county to target a surge in opioid overdoses, most of which involve fentanyl, officials say. There were 814 fentanyl overdose deaths in 2021, up from 84 in 2017, according to the county Medical Examiner’s Office. Last year’s figures will not be available for several months, officials said.
Fentanyl can be deadly in small doses. It is often mixed with other drugs, and individuals can ingest it unknowingly, officials say.
“Illicit fentanyl is quite simply a potent killer,” Nick Macchione, director of the county’s Heath and Human Services Agency, said during the news conference.
Last year, deputies responded to nearly 300 overdoses and administered 146 doses of naloxone, according to the Sheriff’s Department. Most instances involved adults ages 25 to 44, Martinez said.
The new program will allow deputies to leave people with naloxone kits, particularly when the medication might be needed in the future, officials said. Naloxone — also known as Narcan, the brand name — can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
“This distribution that we’re talking about here today is the opportunity to save a life,” San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said during the news conference.
The kits include two doses of naloxone and an educational brochure, which also has a QR code for an instructional video.
So far deputies have doled out 161 kits during various encounters with the public, including traffic stops, Martinez said. In one instance, a person who is homeless was treated with naloxone and declined further medical treatment but asked a deputy for a naloxone kit, the sheriff said.
Officials stressed that the opioid crisis affects adults and youth alike, regardless of whether there is a history of drug abuse. Dr. Natalie Laub, a pediatrician at Rady Children’s Hospital, said fentanyl ingestion has occurred among children under age 5. Last year, 88 young children tested positive for fentanyl, even without showing symptoms. The average age among them was 2, Laub said.
Yet most children who overdose on fentanyl aren’t treated with naloxone, because emergency crews don’t realize the probability of an overdose among children or worry about the effects of naloxone on children. Laub encouraged law enforcement officers and the public to administer naloxone to children who overdose.
“The only side effect is that you will save a life,” Laub said.
The distribution program comes after the Sheriff’s Department last year made naloxone accessible to inmates in communal areas across the county’s jail system. Last month the department said inmates had used naloxone in eight suspected overdoses.
The county also offers naloxone kits at clinics, among other efforts. Macchione said the county’s goal is to distribute at least 33,000 naloxone kits per year.
“This partnership with the county Sheriff’s Deptment and other law enforcement agencies widens our distribution and improves access to those who need naloxone,” Macchione said.
Chula Vista police Chief Roxana Kennedy, also president of the San Diego County Chiefs and Sheriff Association, said other police agencies may join the program. Kennedy said the association will discuss the program at its next meeting.
Martinez said the distribution of naloxone is part of the approach to the problem. She added that law enforcement efforts aim to keep drugs from ending up in the hands of people to begin with. Martinez said that last year, sheriff’s detectives investigated nearly 300 drug-related cases — she did not say how many involved opioids — and that deputies seized 429 pounds of fentanyl.