A firefighter organizes equipment in a ladder truck. Photo by Scott Ball.
A grant to administer naloxone, a life-saving opioid overdose reversal medication, will soon be implemented in Bexar County.

A $3 million federal grant will provide training for Bexar County first responders to administer naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, according to City and County officials.

The State of Texas applied for the funding of behalf of Bexar County. The four-year grant is through the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which was signed into law in July 2016 by President Barack Obama to expand access to drug addiction treatment and overdose reversal drugs along with related reforms in criminal justice and law enforcement. CARA provides $181 million each year in new funding to fight the opioid epidemic.

“By getting this grant, we are positioned to equip hundreds of law enforcement [agents] with the training and naloxone they need to save lives,” T.J. Mayes, chief of staff for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, said Monday.

Securing the grant marks the first accomplishment of the County’s collaboration with the City of San Antonio on the Joint Opioid Task Force, which met for the first time Aug. 8. The task force’s goal is to decrease the number of drug overdose deaths in Bexar County.

Bexar County leads the state in babies born with drug withdrawal symptoms and has the third-highest per-capita rate of overdose deaths in Texas. County Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution in June to form the opioid task force.

The task force brings together local public health experts, medical and pharmaceutical professionals, first responders, policymakers, public school district representatives, and social services agencies to address the opioid epidemic. The percentage of deaths from heroin overdose in the U.S. has tripled since 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“The best way to save someone’s life when they have overdosed is naloxone,” San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger, the task force’s co-chair, told the Rivard Report. “But time is of the essence.”

Bridger said the more people who have naloxone on hand to use when needed, the more lives that can be saved.

Naloxone is injected into a muscle, under the skin, or into a vein through an IV, and can be administered by anyone who has been properly trained. Bridger explained that the task force’s definition of what it means to be a first responder is broad and aims to include “anyone who might be first on the scene,” including the general public.

Through the grant, Bexar County will receive $800,000 annually for four years. In its first year, the grant will be used to train approximately 900 EMS, firefighters, law enforcement offices, and other related hospital and medical staff to administer naloxone. Second year training will expand to include other first responders, such as citizens, educators, and employers in urban locations with a high frequency of drug use.

The funding also will be used to educate the community on the danger of opioids and prescription drug abuse and to connect overdose survivors to treatment in order to prevent continued opioid use or relapse.

Of that funding, $21,000 will go directly toward purchasing naloxone to distribute to first responders. Trained first responders currently have access to the life-saving drug, but investing in more training and medication is intended to increase access throughout San Antonio and Bexar County, officials said.

Texas is one of 33 states that allows people to buy naloxone over the counter without a prescription. Researchers at the National Bureau for Economic Research found that the adoption of a naloxone access law was associated with a 9-11% decrease in opioid deaths in those states.

Bridger told the Rivard Report that the task force is exploring opportunities to add permanent drug drop box locations to provide a safe space for people to properly dispose of prescription drugs so that these substances don’t end up in a public landfill, being abused, or entering into the water supply. She cited research that indicates if permanent prescription drop box locations exist, people are more likely to properly dispose of medications.

San Antonio Water System (SAWS) currently runs MedDropSA, the City’s mobile collection unit for disposal of unwanted medicines along with other household hazardous waste items. Since the program’s inception in 2009, a total of 40,043 pounds of medication and waste have been collected. The mobile pickup events, however, are infrequent, with the next one scheduled to take place on Jan. 27, 2018.

The task force also is seeking to increase the use of the Physician Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), a State-run electronic database used to track the prescribing and dispensing of controlled prescription drugs such as codeine or amphetamines to patients in an effort to monitor suspected abuse or misuse. This information can help prescribers and pharmacists identify patients at high risk of addiction who would benefit from early interventions.

The Opioid Task Force will meet Tuesday to continue discussion of its objectives. The meeting is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on the fifth floor of the University Health System’s Robert B. Green Campus clinical Pavilion.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.