New Vt. Health Dept. Program Focuses on Fentanyl Exposure

BURLINGTON, Vt. - A program by the Vermont Department of Health aims to inform law enforcement officials and first responders on how to handle potentially lethal drugs while in the field.

Fentanyl is a cheaper, more potent and, in turn, deadlier opioid than heroin. It’s on the rise in our region.

Fifty one of the 106 people who died last year in Vermont from opiates had fentanyl in their system, according to the Vermont Department of Health. In 2015, 29 people died with the synthetic opioid in their system and in 2014, 18 people showed signs of fentanyl.

It’s a drug so dangerous, law enforcement officials could overdose if exposed to it.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, treats any white powder as if it could kill.

“With heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil - it's a game changer now,” said Brian Villella, resident agent in charge of the DEA in Vermont.

Villella says Vermont’s seen a major uptick of fentanyl in the last two months.

It’s been part of the heroin epidemic problem for a few  years.

Because of the prevalence of the killer drug, the DEA no longer tests drugs in the field or in its offices.

“The days of going out and purchasing drugs or seizing drugs and bringing it back and testing it at our desks or testing it in our offices or even out in the field, those days are gone because these substances are that dangerous,” he said.

The DEA recommends all other law enforcement agencies follow that same rule.

But local police departments, including Burlington’s, say field testing is a necessary step in drug investigations.
   
“Field test is recognized here by the judiciary and really the standard to which we're held," said Deputy Chief Shawn Burke. “We have had conversations with the state's attorney about ways in which we can approach these cases in the judiciary, given the emergence of fentanyl. This whole evolution is so new that the system's yet to catch up with it."

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George says she wants to make sure law enforcement officers are safe. She says field testing is not required and if the officer’s conclusion is questioned, the drugs can be sent to a lab for confirmation.

“I have instructed them that in cases where they suspect fentanyl to be present they should use their training and experience to determine whether the drug is what they suspect it to be, and give a clear explanation in their affidavits of why they believe that,” said Sarah George. “This is sufficient for probable cause to be found.”

Deputy Chief Burke says the risk of fentanyl exposure is one of the main reasons why Narcan, an overdose-reversal drug, is always on hand, either in the field or where testing is done at the station.

“There are any number of situations that the police respond into where a physical encounter could erupt in a living room and this substance could be knocked off a table and subsequently airborne,” he said.

According to the DEA’s Brian Villella, officers in four states, New Jersey, Georgia, Ohio and Connecticut, have suffered fentanyl exposure in the past year.

Vermont law enforcement agencies approached the Department of Health to find out how to field test safely.

“It can get absorbed by inhalation, you can breath it in,” said Chris Bell, director of the Department of Health’s Division of Emergency Preparedness Response and Injury Prevention. “It can be absorbed  through the skin but that takes much longer."

Bell put together a new program being rolled out this summer to inform law enforcement officials and first responders on best practices.

The program’s materials include informational cards, posters and a video.

Police and responders are advised to wear gloves, a gown and a surgical mask while testing drugs.

"After they're done testing, take off the personal protective equipment, the mask and the gloves and throw them away,” said Bell. “It's really simple thing but it's not something that law enforcement officers necessarily receive training on."

Officials with the Plattsburgh Police Department and the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office say they have practices in place to ensure safety with field testing.

Vermont State Police has new rules in effect this year because of the rise of fentanyl.

According to Captain John Merrigan, commander of the Special Investigations Unit, all barracks are equipped with a designated counter top for all drug testing based on the concept of putting a constant barrier between the trooper and the substance.

The testing is done on a rolled out piece of paper wearing a mask, safety glasses and a disposable lab coat, Capt. Merrigan said.

He says when a substance is believed to be fentanyl, it is immediately sent to the lab for testing.
 


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