WVPB News –
On Wednesday, dozens of bright yellow signs were sprinkled across more than a dozen towns in Putnam and Kanawha counties, some accompanied by purple balloons, others leading to tents and tables with bright yellow bags and pamphlets.
“FREE NALOXONE TODAY,” the signs advertised. “OVERDOSE REVERSAL DRUG.”
Naloxone, sometimes called Narcan, is a medication that can be administered nasally or by injection, to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. It can prevent an otherwise fatal outcome, and advocates say it can offer someone dealing with addiction a chance at recovery.
Depending on a person’s tolerance for opioids, naloxone will sometimes cause side effects like sweating, vomiting, a runny nose and increased heart rate.
“But if a person is not breathing, or not breathing well, the chance that naloxone will save their life is more important than any possible side effects,” said Jamie Menshouse-Lukhmanova, a collegiate recovery coach at Marshall University.
She was one of several volunteers outside Bridge Valley Technical Community College, training others on how to recognize an overdose, how to use naloxone and what to do after administering the drug.
Naloxone can come in several different forms. The training offered on Wednesday covered syringes, thigh injections and nasal spray.
“The first time I administered naloxone, I was still in active addiction, so I was really scared,” Menshouse-Lukhmanova said. “But thankfully, the person had Narcan on them already, and Narcan was really easy to administer to them.”
The process works best when either the person administering naloxone, or the person in need of naloxone, keeps the substance in an accessible place. Because people are supposed to call emergency responders when preparing to administer naloxone, there are also laws in place to protect anyone who, in good faith, administers naloxone from criminal charges.
“I called 911 and overall, it was okay,” Menshouse-Lukhmanova said. “Police didn’t even show up. It was just EMS, and they gave both of us basically referral information for [recovery] services.”
Community Distribution An Effort From Several Groups
The event on Wednesday, spanning Putnam and Kanawha counties, had support from the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy and funding from various health groups, including $30,000 from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation and $10,000 from the CAMC Foundation. Organizers said there was also funding and support from the University of Charleston, the Kanawha County Health Department, the West Virginia Bureau for Behavioral Health, West Virginia Health Right and Cabin Creek Health Systems.
Most of the money was directed toward naloxone, and by the end of Wednesday organizers reported that they had distributed more than 1,000 kits. Leftovers will go to Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, a group that administers naloxone and works to remove the stigma associated with substance use disorder.
Other groups, including churches and recovery organizations, helped plan and staff distribution sites across more than a dozen towns.
Roughly 15 miles from the naloxone site in Montgomery, staff at the Chesapeake Healthcare Center said they had already distributed more than 20 kits by noon.
“One of the individuals that we actually had come by, she said, ‘It would be irresponsible not to take advantage of this one when it’s free,’” said the center’s CEO, Genise Lalos.
Chesapeake Healthcare Center has lost two patients to overdose deaths since West Virginia began responding to the pandemic, according to Lalos.
“Both could have been prevented if someone would have been there with Narcan,” Lalos said. “These individuals were young and they had families of their own. It’s not only the tragedy of that person’s death, but it’s the tragedy of what they leave behind, and all the people who are affected, who cared about that person.”
Overdoses Increase As Pandemic Wages On
Statewide, as in-person resources for recovery are restricted and stressors increase, emergency responders are reporting more overdoses.
From May to July, paramedics responded to more than 2,500 suspected overdose calls, according to the Office of Drug Control Policy.
For that same stretch of time in 2019, EMS reported responding to 1,900.
From March to the end of July, the ODCP has reported a little more than 3,000 emergency room visits statewide, all related to overdoses.
“What’s been really sad about COVID-19 in the recovery field is that it seems like West Virginia has had more people in the ER from overdoses than COVID,” said Fran Gray, program director for Recovery Point in Charleston. “It just feels like we still have an epidemic happening on top of this pandemic.”
Recovery Point is an abstinence-based recovery home for people living with substance use disorder, with a few locations across the state.
At the women’s site in Charleston, where Gray works, residents have spent the last month organizing bright yellow backpacks with recovery information inside, for volunteers to hand out on Save a Life Day.
Normally, Gray said September – which is national recovery month – is filled with events for supporting recovery efforts, and removing some of the stigma around substance use disorder. The pandemic has forced some event organizers to either cancel or go remote.
“It’s really sad, honestly, because before COVID, it really felt like we were making this huge impact on the recovery community,” Gray said. “There was really a lot of momentum, a lot of people understood and then with the pandemic, you can tell it’s been watered down a little bit.”
Hope For Harm Reduction Efforts
Lindsay Acree works as an assistant professor at the University of Charleston’s School of Pharmacy, and she joined Gray, Johnson and others to help plan Save a Life Day. She also trains volunteers who want to distribute or administer naloxone.
“It’s a little easier for someone that’s already in the community to get out there and reach individuals that need Naloxone than it is for other individuals, sometimes,” Acree said. “If there’s that community connection, that helps so that they can actually reach the people that need it.”
Save a Life Day was made possible in part by a new law that went into effect earlier this year, establishing a community-based distribution model. Any group with a standing order from a pharmacy, with training, can distribute naloxone and train others on its use.
Annette Johnson, a collegiate recovery coach for Bridge Valley Technical and Community College, said Wednesday she hopes to see more efforts to increase community access to naloxone, and increased support for harm reduction initiatives like the program in Fayette County, where staff conduct testing for sexually transmitted infections and facilitate a needle exchange program.
“It saves lives,” Johnson said. “It prevents diseases, and then there’s recovery coaches there that can help and guide people, point them in the right direction and be there for support.”