By Daniel Kelley
(Reuters) - Police in coastal Ocean County in New Jersey, faced with a doubling in deaths from drug overdoses in the past year, have issued all police officers an anti-opiate drug in a pilot program aimed at combating deaths tied to painkiller addiction.
Police have already saved six people from overdoses since launching early this month a test of the anti-opiate drug naloxone, which helps restore breathing in people who have overdosed on opiate drugs.
"We're on a roll," said Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the county prosecutor's office, which led the effort. "We've heard from all the officers. In almost every case, their first comment is how great it will be to do something except stand there."
The county, home to about 583,000 people, saw 112 overdose deaths in 2013, more than double the 53 recorded in 2012, Della Fave said. That rise was fueled by an epidemic of prescription painkiller abusers who have turned to heroin because it is cheaper.
States across the country have cleared the path for first responders to carry the rescue drug, which goes by the brand name Narcan and can restore breathing in two to five minutes. Municipalities in New York and Massachusetts are conducting similar tests and New York State officials earlier this month laid out plans to equip every officer in the state with the antidote.
Earlier this month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a portable device to treat overdoses that people without medical training can use.
Della Fave said there are plans to roll out the program across the state from the coastal county about 50 miles east of Philadelphia.
Last year, New Jersey enacted a law that allowed drug users to call for emergency medical assistance without fear of prosecution for minor drug crimes.
"New Jersey has been hard hit," said Daniel Raymond, policy director at the New York-based Harm Reduction Coalition. "They've really gotten on board with preventing overdose deaths. We're already seeing a difference."
States including Maine and Connecticut are mulling similar measures.
The first city to begin using Narcan, Quincy, Massachusetts, reversed 221 overdoses since requiring first responders to carry the drug in 2010. First responders in Suffolk County, New York used Narcan 564 times in 2013, and say they saved the life of all but one who received it, according to officials there.
(Reporting by Daniel Kelley in Philadelphia; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Shumaker)