The Salem fire and police departments will soon be wielding a powerful weapon in the fight against the heroin epidemic washing over New England. Starting next month, all of the city’s first responders will carry a nasal spray containing naloxone, which can counter the effects of a heroin overdose within minutes. Other communities should follow suit.
Paramedics on ambulance crews in Salem as well as in most local communities have been administering the drug for years, but firefighters and police are often first on the scene at an overdose, and a fast response can save lives.
A wave of heroin overdoses across the state have pushed the issue to the forefront. The Massachusetts state police say at least 185 people have died of heroin overdoses in the last four months, a number that does not take into account the state’s three largest cities — Boston, Springfield and Worcester — which keep their own records.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says prescription drug and heroin fatalities have outstripped homicide and traffic deaths in the United States. In 2010, more than 16,000 Americans died of an overdose of prescription painkillers. Another 3,000 died from heroin, an increase of 45 percent from 2006.
Salem has seen the trend firsthand. There were seven overdoses in the city all of last year; there have already been four in 2014.
“This is about the worst I’ve seen it,” police Chief Paul Tucker said.
The region has grappled with spikes in heroin abuse and overdoses before, but the recent spate of deaths have surprised safety officials. In 2014, heroin is especially cheap and deadly.
“Around here, you can get it for $30 or $40 a bag,” said Tom Griffin, Salem’s head of detectives. “Some places up north, it’s $5 a bag. I’ve heard stories of other cities where they’re giving it away trying to get people addicted to it. It’s a tough addiction to kick.”