New Grant to Attack Opioid Crisis in Multiple Ways

Dr. Dan Derksen teaching a Public Health Policy and Management class at UA.
Photo by Jason Weir

Police officers and fire fighter are first responders to get first treatment in training to high the state’s opioid epidemic.

The University of Arizona and Arizona Department of Health Services will use a three-tier approach to what Gov. Ducey declared a “statewide emergency,” the growing opioid epidemic.

“With 100 to 270 overdoses related to opioids a week, this is an issue that reaches all areas,” Dr. Daniel Derksen, director of UA’s Center for Rural Health, said.

One tier will train first responders in administering Naloxone, a drug that blocks opiate receptors in the brain.

“This training addresses that basic life support group,” project overseer Taylor George, section chief of AZDHS Bureau of Emergency Services and Trauma System, said. “Their traditional, initial education does not include assessment of a patient or administration of an invasive procedure, such as Naloxone.”

The second tier of the project will be focused on Naloxone distribution, including areas where transport times are a challenge.

“It may take them a half an hour,” Derksen said of some transports times.

This tier will work to address areas in need of Naloxone and help to supply those, often rural, areas.

“Seconds and minutes can mean the difference between death and permanent brain damage,” Derksen said. “You want to get it reversed with Naloxone as quickly as possible.”

George emphasized this fact.

“That can be a critical time-period for administering Naloxone,” George said.

George explained how opioid overdoses slow down the brain and lung response time, which can lead a person to stop breathing.

“That can be readily corrected with the administration of Naloxone,” George said.

Derksen explained the third-tier of the project will be focused on training first responders to recognize intervention opportunities and provide advice to the people they treat.

Joshua B. Gaither, UA associate professor of emergency medicine, explained a challenge in this part of the project.

“You have to convince our EMTs and paramedics it is something they should do,” Gaither said. “They have never done it before, at least none of my medics.”

Jeremy Simmons, an emergency medical technician for 11 years, said he would welcome any training that could offer new help in the fight. Simmons works for the national medical transportation company, American Medical Response.

“There is no intervention on the scene (now),” Simmons said.

Gaither explained that a patient may just leave after being revived. The training would give first responders another option at the scene.

The training is aimed at potential repeat patients.

“On average a person has been seen three times in an emergency room before they die of an overdose,” Derksen said. “What we want to do is take those opportunities for intervention earlier, so we don’t have that tragic consequence of someone dying of an overdose.”

Jason Weir is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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