The Lake County Sheriff's Department soon could become the first law enforcement agency in Lake County to carry a lifesaving drug that reverses the effects of heroin and other opioid overdoses.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said he has informed his uniformed officers and medical team, and his department is looking into ordering naloxone kits.

He said he plans to purchase kits for 100 officers at $75 each. Buncich said his staff is working to identify funding sources, including grant money, and he hopes to move forward by month's end.

Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a drug that reverses the effects of heroin and opioid-derived prescription drugs such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet and morphine.

It cannot help in overdoses involving benzodiazepines, a class of psychoactive drugs that includes Xanax, Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris said.

Hospitals for years have used naloxone to treat overdoses, but an amendment to Indiana law in 2014 authorized first responders to administer the drug.

Portage Police Chief Troy Williams was the first in the Region to equip some of his officers with naloxone kits in May 2014.

Many of Porter County's authorities and other first responders began carrying the overdose antidote in late 2014, thanks to an initial $2,500 grant from the Porter County Community Foundation and continued support from Porter Regional Hospital and Fagen Pharmacy, officials said.

Harris was part of a group that worked to equip most first responders in Porter County with the drug.

"At no point anywhere in this process is it a burden on the taxpayers," he said. "It's working out beautifully."

Training for first responders was provided on a volunteer basis, Harris said.

'A chance to get clean'

The news that Lake County Sheriff's Department might start carrying naloxone comes amid a rise in heroin-related deaths in 2015 following a decrease a year earlier.

Lake County recorded 43 heroin-related deaths as of Dec. 23 and could have ended 2015 with as many as 50, depending on results of several pending toxicology reports, Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey said.

Lake County saw 33 heroin-related deaths and 15 prescription drug deaths in 2014. In 2013, Frey's office recorded 50 heroin deaths and 10 prescription drug deaths. Lake County also had one Fentanyl-related death in 2013 and four in 2014. 

Harris said he has no doubt the use of naloxone by first responders in Porter County has significantly reduced the number of opioid-related deaths he records.

Porter County had 27 opioid-related deaths in 2013 and 36 in 2014, including 16 heroin deaths in 2013 and 12 heroin deaths in 2014. Harris has recorded 23 opioid-related deaths, including 10 from heroin, in 2015, though the final number could increase because several toxicology reports remain pending, he said.

Police and emergency medical services personnel in Porter County saved more than 30 people with naloxone last year, including two on Christmas Day, Sheriff Dave Reynolds said.

Harris said if those people had not received naloxone when they did, the number of opioid-related deaths he recorded last year would have been that much more.

"It gives people another chance to get clean," Harris said.

Some might say it's not worth saving addicts, he said.

"But if that's your son or daughter, it's a different story," he said. "You want to give them every chance possible."

'Every moment counts'

There's no question the drug has been a valuable asset for first responders in Porter County, Reynolds said. He commended Buncich for the move.

"This just reflects on how serious the problem is in Porter County and Lake County," he said.

Reynolds said Porter County, Valparaiso and Portage police responded to 57 overdoses last year, 10 of which were heroin deaths. Officers are trained to investigate every overdose, and any information gathered is passed along to the sheriff's drug unit for further investigation.

Frey said naloxone won't help in a majority of her office's heroin-related deaths, where people are found with no signs of life. But she's certain, she said, that many of those who can be taken to hospitals will survive if they’re treated sooner with naloxone.

"Every moment counts when you're talking about a heroin overdose, because their respiratory system is suppressed, it's compromised," she said. "When you give naloxone, you have an immediate reversal of symptoms. They awaken and start breathing again."

Frey said she's working with Lake County’s seven hospitals to determine how many people are treated for overdoses each year and survive.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter serves on Gov. Mike Pence's Task Force for Drug Enforcement, Treatment and Prevention, which has recommended the promotion of more widespread use of naloxone.

Carter said he supports the use of naloxone not only by law enforcement, but also by others authorized under state law to use the drug.

"Anyone who has a child or loved one or family member who's addicted to heroin should have that available to them," Carter said.

Pence in October ordered state agencies to carry out three recommendations made by his task force. Besides promoting use of naloxone, the task force also recommended that Indiana seek flexibility to use existing federal Medicaid funds for drug treatment and study youth assistance programs.

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Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.