Mass. town's Narcan model marks 10 years of saving, changing lives
The Quincy Police Department was a pioneer in the U.S. for having its officers carry the life-saving drug, which was once out of reach for police
By Joe DiFazio
The Patriot Ledger
QUINCY, Mass. — On Nov. 2, 2013, Downtown Crossing in Boston was full of revelers and cops. The Red Sox and their fans were celebrating a World Series victory with a parade, and police officers from cities and towns around Boston were in town to help with traffic, security and crowds.
During the celebration, a man suddenly was in desperate need of help. His girlfriend was overdosing, and he was looking for a cop. But not just any officer could help him. The man spotted exactly who he needed, a Quincy cop, and brushed past Boston police officers who were trying to help.
"He saw 'Quincy police' on one of the officers' jackets. And he said, 'Quincy police, you guys have Narcan,'" said Quincy police officer Gregg Hartnett, who was at the scene that day.
Hartnett and other officers rushed to help the woman and administered Narcan, a drug that reverses overdoses.
"And she came back up and grabbed onto my arm and said, 'You saved my life,'" Hartnett said.
This October marks the 10th anniversary of the " Quincy Model," a program in which every Quincy police officer carries Narcan, and has since evolved to include a constellation of services aimed at fighting the opioid epidemic.
The Quincy Police Department was a pioneer in the U.S. for having its officers carry the life-saving drug, which was once out of reach for police but is now ubiquitous as an important tool in combating deadly overdoses.
Narcan, a brand name for naloxone, is credited with saving hundreds of lives in Quincy over the past decade. Word spread quickly that Quincy officers carried the life-saving drug, and Detective Lt. Patrick Glynn, head of the city's drug unit, became an evangelist for what was later dubbed the Quincy Model by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"When the program first started, one of our officers was pulled over in a marked cruiser driving down Sea Street in front of the station. There was a car behind him beeping their horn and flashing their headlights, and the officer pulled over," Glynn said.
"'What is this, opposite day? You're pulling me over?' the officer said. The guy said, 'My buddy's in the back seat overdosing. I know you have Narcan.'"
In 2008 and 2009, Quincy and the state Department of Public Health noticed an alarming uptick in the number of overdoses, primarily caused by opioids. Quincy, and the South Shore, were caught in an epidemic that would go on to claim hundreds of thousands of lives in the U.S.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 1999 and 2018, 750,000 people in America died from overdose, with about two-thirds of those deaths caused by opioids such as prescription painkillers and heroin.
Glynn said the state Department of Public Health asked if Quincy police wanted to take part in a pilot program to have officers carry Narcan, and they jumped at the opportunity.
The city had already been looking into acquiring Narcan for its officers. Mayor Thomas Koch said that when he was newly elected, two parents told him about their son, who had overdosed in their house. They said police showed up, but didn't have Narcan. Firefighters showed up, no Narcan. It wasn't until a private ambulance arrived that someone was able to reverse their son's overdose with Narcan.
"'Why don't first responders carry it?' the mother asked me," Koch said. "'That's a good question. Let me speak to my chiefs about it.'"
The mayor formed a drug task force to face the burgeoning problem he was hearing about on the campaign trail and reading about in the news.
With the help of the state's pilot program, Quincy police were able to get a standing prescription and training for the drug. By October 2010, the Quincy Police Department was the first in the nation to have all its officers trained and carrying Narcan.
A game changer
The drug is fast acting, and police officers are often the first ones at the scene in an emergency, making the drug a game changer for overdoses.
Quincy police say they have administered Narcan more than 1,100 times in the past decade, reversing 1,034 overdoses. Sometimes it takes multiple doses to reverse an overdose.
Glynn said that in the first 18 months, the department saw a 66 percent decrease in fatal overdoses. Before Narcan, Quincy had up to about 50 fatal overdoses in a year, Glynn said.
Between 2013 and 2019, the city averaged 34 fatal opioid overdoses per year, a fraction of the overall opioid overdoses, which averaged 224 per year during the same period. The city's firefighters now carry the drug as well.
Hartnett, the community policing officer who saved a woman at the Red Sox parade, said Narcan is "kind of like a magical drug" that's made a big difference in the work he does.
"You would get to a call, and say it's 3 in the morning, and you run up the stairs into the bathroom of someone's house. And this 20-year-old is on the floor, blue. And the parents are obviously hysterical, freaking out. 'Do something! Do something!'" Hartnett said. "Prior to being able to carry the Narcan, all we could do is wait for the ambulance."
While the success of the nationally recognized program in Quincy convinced police departments on the South Shore and across the country to adopt Narcan, it was controversial at first.
The skeptics included "people who think police officers shouldn't be administering medication, but there were a lot of myths also," Glynn said. "Then the misinformed people said that once you're a heroin addict or a fentanyl addict – we like to say '(opioid use) disorder' – that you're always going to be one, and whatever happens to you is unfortunate. We don't think that way."
Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey, who was elected in 2010, noticed that Quincy's approach was paying quick dividends.
"Quincy was on the forefront of making a difference. In less than a year, it was clear this was helping," Morrissey said. "It got our attention."
The Norwood and Stoughton police departments were quick to work with the district attorney's office to expand the program, Morrissey said.
He said that an attitude change in law enforcement about trying to address opioid use as a medical problem helped foster innovative ideas and new services.
Dr. Dan Muse, who became the Quincy Police Department's medical director in 2013 and helped bring Narcan to other departments in the county, said local law enforcement has done more than the health care industry to fight the opioid crisis, with limited resources.
"If health care did half as much as law enforcement has, we'd have a much better handle on this," Muse said.
Muse, an emergency physician at Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital, helped train Norfolk County police departments in 2014.
"All these departments learned how instrumental they can be in saving lives that had nothing to do with a violent threat," Muse said. "It's awe-inspiring."
Glynn said officers and communities quickly bought into the program, and people dealing with opioid abuse began to see the cops differently.
"As time went on from there, we realized that it was a great thing," Glynn said. "The feedback we got from the public, the perception of the police, dramatically changed. So we were not just the enforcers on the street. We were there to help people suffering from opioid use disorders and refer them to other agencies that would help them with the addiction issues."
The program led to new services.
Quincy police, in partnership with Manet Community Health, began making follow-up visits with the families of overdose survivors, leaving Narcan with them and connecting people with services.
Two years ago, Morrissey added a program in Quincy and other communities that allows people facing low-level drug charges to get help instead.
In 2011, Good Samaritan laws changed so people could call 911 about an overdose and not worry about being charged with possession.
In 2017, the state Department of Health issued a standing order for pharmacies to dispense Narcan to anyone, essentially writing a prescription for anyone who walks into a CVS or Walgreens to buy the drug.
It's now common for police officers, firefighters, nurses and others concerned about overdoses to carry Narcan. All or nearly all police and fire departments in the state now carry it.
Fatal opioid overdoses in the state appeared to have peaked in 2016, with the death toll hitting 2,102 that year. In 2019, the death toll dropped to an estimated 2,015, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Quincy and the state appeared to have some success curbing the epidemic by taking a multifaceted approach to a complicated issue, but the coronavirus pandemic – coupled with the surge of fentanyl, a drug more powerful than heroin – may be a stumbling block in that fight.
Glynn knows there's more work to do, but he's happy with the program's success so far. He credits Quincy officers on the beat.
"I'm extremely proud. I'm ecstatic for the city, and for the department, and the men and women of this department, because that's what built it. The department's officers are the backbone of what we've done.
"I'm just a facilitator, if you look at it from that perspective. I do the training, I get to travel around to 42 states to spread our word," Glynn said. "It was called the Quincy Model, but really it's the people's program. This is to help everybody."
The state Department of Public Health provided background information for this article, but declined to comment.
About this series:
A decade ago, with overdose cases involving heroin and various synthetic opioids on the rise in Quincy, Detective Lt. Patrick Glynn and other city leaders spearheaded a move to make the Quincy Police Department the first department in the country to equip all officers with Narcan, a nasally administered drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. A decade later, what became known as the Quincy Model has been replicated nationwide. This three-day series looks at how the Quincy Police Department's program continues to save and change lives.
(c)2020 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.