Whatcom County gives away naloxone to curb opioid overdose deaths

Watch an explanation of opiate overdose drug naloxone at Whatcom County Health Department

Jessica McAllister, syringe services program coordinator, explains how naloxone works and what else comes in the naloxone kits available at the Whatcom County Health Department on Tuesday, Aug. 16, in Bellingham.
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Jessica McAllister, syringe services program coordinator, explains how naloxone works and what else comes in the naloxone kits available at the Whatcom County Health Department on Tuesday, Aug. 16, in Bellingham.

While supplies last, the Whatcom County Health Department is giving away medication that can keep someone from dying of an opioid overdose.

The county was among 10 in Washington state to receive 2,100 doses of naloxone, which also is known by the brand name Narcan, for a pilot project to give the lifesaving medication to injection drug users, or their friends and families, in rural counties.

The medication was put into kits, each containing two doses, and given to people, for free, to take home.

Whatcom County received 70 doses in April, and then another 200 doses recently after the first round had been distributed.

“Demand is so great for it,” said Susan Kingston, education coordinator with the Center for Opioid Safety Education at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

The center managed the project and distribution to the 10 counties.

It’s part of a statewide effort to widen access to naloxone as Washington and the nation struggle with an epidemic of opioid abuse and overdose. It’s trouble that has found its way to Whatcom County.

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.

About 600 people die each year in Washington state of opioid overdose and an increasing number of those deaths involve heroin, according to the 2016 Washington State Interagency Opioid Working Plan.

Funding for the project that includes Whatcom County came from the state Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery.

It focused on distributing naloxone to rural needle exchanges that didn’t have a naloxone program in place, such as Whatcom County, or had one in place but ran out of money.

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.

Asking for help

An overdose occurs when people stop breathing, a process that can take minutes to hours.

“Basically, their body forgets to breathe,” said Anne Deacon, Human Services manager for the Whatcom County Health Department.

Naloxone, which can’t be abused, reverses the overdose and allows the body to breathe again.

It can be injected or sprayed into the nose.

The naloxone given to the 10 counties is meant to be injected into muscles.

“Intramuscular is cheaper,” Kingston explained. “Syringe exchange clients already inject and know how to handle that.”

People who seek naloxone through the Whatcom County Health Department must first go through a roughly 30-minute training session that includes learning how to give the medication, calling 911, the limits of the medication, and protection under what’s commonly known as the “Good Samaritan” law.

The law provides immunity to a fellow drug user who calls 911 to get help for someone who’s overdosing, provided callers don’t have warrants out for them or large amounts of drugs on them.

Putting the antidote into the hands of drug users and their friends and family – so-called laypeople – isn’t a new idea, though it’s gaining traction.

Nationally, naloxone kits were given to 152,283 laypersons from 1996 through June 2014, according to the CDC. They were used to reverse at least 26,463 overdoses.

The CDC supports such naloxone distribution and education efforts, as does the Washington state Department of Health and the state Board of Pharmacy.

Whatcom County has seen a 23 percent increase in deaths attributed to opiates from 2004 to 2013, although that is still less than state levels, according to the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

Somebody can’t be helped if they’re no longer with us. It’s to save somebody’s life so that, hopefully, we can help them overcome the addiction.

Chris Kobdish, with medical provider Unity Care Northwest

Providing naloxone helps more than the person who’s overdosing.

“It saves taxpayer dollars by trying to keep people healthy and preventing them from overdosing so that they do not need to use up health care resources,” said Jessica McAllister, a public health nurse who is coordinator of the Whatcom County Health Department’s Syringe Services Program.

Increasing access also means being able to get it at pharmacies, where the focus widens beyond heroin.

That’s the case 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 Hoagland, where people can buy it without a prescription.

“There’s people that need help,” said Sonia Gale, pharmacy manager for Hoagland.

Both launched the effort this year to reach patients addicted to opioids or their family members, letting them know they can get a naloxone kit to take home as well as help in figuring out how to use it.

“It’s not a long-term solution,” said Chris Kobdish, director of planning and development for Unity Care Northwest.

“Somebody can’t be helped if they’re no longer with us,” Kobdish added. “It’s to save somebody’s life so that, hopefully, we can help them overcome the addiction.”

Naloxone is available for free only from the health department.

As McAllister and others at the Whatcom County Health Department distribute the doses they have, they are waiting to hear whether the state might get a federal grant that would allow officials to buy more naloxone.

And as they wait, they see people such as the woman who came to the health department’s needle exchange program recently, trembling and crying.

She wanted to know if public health officials had the medication for her son in case he overdosed, but she came before they had the second round of doses ready to distribute.

“I can’t imagine begging for someone to give me medication to save my son,” McAllister said.

Now, the health department has it. McAllister hopes the woman returns.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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: