As opioid fight continues, Whatcom is giving this away to the community to save lives

Firefighter demonstrates how to provide a dose of naloxone

Battalion Chief Josh Morell demonstrates the ease of administering naloxone as a nasal spray during a 2017 training class at South Whatcom Fire Authority’s Geneva Station.
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Battalion Chief Josh Morell demonstrates the ease of administering naloxone as a nasal spray during a 2017 training class at South Whatcom Fire Authority’s Geneva Station.

Whatcom County is continuing to give away medication that reverses an opioid overdose in order to save lives.

The Whatcom County Health Department has been distributing naloxone to injection drug users, or their friends and families — first as part of a pilot and now through a five-year, federal grant.

The Center for Opioid Safety Education at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute managed both efforts in which medication was put into kits, each containing two doses and syringes, and given to people, for free, to take home.

The Whatcom County Health Department is providing the naloxone for this effort through its needle exchange program.

Last year, the health department distributed 299 kits, containing 598 doses. Of that, 73 kits were used to reverse overdoses, according to Melissa Morin, spokeswoman for the Whatcom County Health Department.

From January through March 31 of this year, the county has given out 92 kits, with 184 doses. Of those, 31 kits were used for overdoses.

The information comes from clients who are required to fill out surveys when they receive a new naloxone kit or a refill, Morin said.

The data doesn't specify how many people were saved by the naloxone in the kits.

"The vast majority of the time the reversal is successful, and many times the overdose victim wakes up before emergency personnel arrive," Morin said, referring to a report published by UW's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute in November 2017.

The program in Whatcom County is part of a statewide effort to widen access to naloxone as Washington and the nation struggle with an epidemic of opioid abuse and overdose.

Opioids include prescription painkillers — such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone — and heroin, which is illegal.

Heroin use has risen sharply across the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most addicts said they abused prescription opioids, known by brand names that include Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet, before using heroin.

In 2015, more than 700 people statewide died from an opioid-related overdose, according to the 2017 Washington State Opioid Response Plan.

"This high mortality is due to the increase in heroin overdose deaths even though prescription opioid overdose deaths have decreased," the report states. "The largest increase in heroin overdose deaths from 2004 to 2014 occurred among younger people ages 15 to 34 years."

Naloxone is also known by the brand names Narcan, which is a nasal spray, and Evzio, which is injected.

First responders such as police and firefighters already carry naloxone.

But getting the antidote into the hands of drug users and their friends and family — so-called lay people — is an idea that's gaining traction, with the U.S. Surgeon General and Washington state health officials recently urging more people to carry naloxone.

Using needle exchanges puts the antidote into the hands of those most at risk — addicts who also are told not to shoot up alone — as well as their friends and family. Most people who exchange their old syringes for new, sterile ones are heroin addicts.

Even before the call went out this month for more people to carry naloxone, Washington state and Whatcom County already were moving to do so.

Whatcom County was among the 14 needle exchange programs in the state to distribute 3,640 naloxone kits, the state Department of Health said this month.

Increasing access has meant making it possible for people to get it at pharmacies, where the focus widens beyond heroin.

In Whatcom County, where people can get naloxone through health centers such as Unity Care Northwest, which provides it to its patients and their families, and at pharmacies that include Costco, Walgreens and Fred Meyer, where people can buy it without a prescription.

Naloxone is available for free only from the health department.

"In many cases, naloxone is covered by health insurance, so people who have been prescribed high doses of opioids by their healthcare provider, or friends and family of people who have an opioid use disorder, can access it fairly easily through a pharmacy," Morin said.

As word gets out about the county's distribution of naloxone through its needle exchange program, the demand is increasing.

"We encourage clients to come back for a refill if the kit was lost, stolen, given away or used in an OD," Morin said. "We also encourage clients to give the kits to those in need who will not or cannot come in for their own kits and come back to us to get a refill for themselves.

"The most important thing is that the kits are out in the community to save lives," Morin said.

Find help

The Whatcom County Health Department is distributing naloxone through its needle exchange, called the Syringe Services Program, from 2:30 to 5:15 p.m. Thursdays at 1500 N. State St. in Bellingham.

The medication can reverse an opioid overdose and prevent death.

It will be available for free at the health department while supplies last.

Learn more online at:

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea