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Narcan and recovery programs give Union County authorities an edge in stopping opioid deaths

ELIZABETH, N.J. -- Law enforcement in Union County, New Jersey are deploying Narcan at a rapid clip, turning the tide on a record-breaking trend of overdose deaths. The life-saving drug has the power to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

"Here in Union County we've seen a steady increase over the past several years. Last year, we hit an all-time high of 126 overdose deaths," said Julie Peterman, an assistant Union County prosecutor. "This year, we initially were on pace to go even higher than that number, but we've seen a slight slow down."

Meanwhile, Narcan nasal injections are speeding up.

In 2017, police officers across the county administered Narcan 180 times to overdose victims.

So far this year, the county has already far surpassed that number. Authorities have used Narcan 214 times in the first nine months of 2018. That's almost once per day.

It's even had to be used on law enforcement.

"My arms went completely numb," recalls Elizabeth Police Officer Carrie Scharpnick. Powerful drugs almost sent her into an overdose weeks ago. "I yelled over to my partner, 'something is wrong!'.

Scharpnick and her partner were on a traffic stop when they found a powdery substance in the driver's purse. The driver was arrested. It wasn't until they were on the way back to headquarters that Scharpnick realized that the powder must have gotten onto her skin.

"Normal protocol, you go back to the car and clean your hands off. And unfortunately, because of alcohol in the hand sanitizer, it opens up your pores. So it immediately went into the skin," she said.

Once back at headquarters, Scharpnick's supervisor ran toward her with Narcan. After two sprays up the nostrils, she started to stabilize.

It wasn't until later that they discovered that the drug Scharpnick had been handling was heroin laced with fentanyl.

"There does appear to be an increase in fentanyl. And we are obviously at the front lines," said her supervisor.

Fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin or through the air.

At least two Elizabeth Police officers have had to be injected with Narcan in recent months due to fentanyl exposure.

Fentanyl is also what fueled Union County’s all-time high of 126 overdose deaths last year.

The drug is cheaper and more potent than heroin, delivering a deadly high.

Narcan has brought 94 percent of local overdose victims back from the brink, according to the Union County Prosecutor's Office, but it's not enough to put them on a path to recovery.

"The Narcan is really step one," said Sgt. Gary Webb with the Union County Prosecutor's Office narcotics strike force. "It's our policy if someone is getting Narcanned that they must meet with a recovery specialist at the hospital."

Recently, the county implemented a program called 'operation helping hands'. In one week, they arrested 102 people for drug possession, 82 of which were routed directly into addiction treatment.