SNOW HILL- The Worcester County Health Department is increasing the availability of naloxone in an effort to combat the growing heroin epidemic.
Worcester County Health Officer Debbie Goeller said the department is working to make naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, available to prisoners being released from jail and overdose patients leaving the emergency room.
“It doesn’t cure addiction, it simply saves a life in hopes that a person will want to get into treatment and become drug free,” Goeller said.
According to Goeller the health department recently reallocated funding within its budget to expand the availability of naloxone. Up until now, the department has put much of its focus on training individuals—law enforcement and health officials as well as citizens—so that they know how to administer naloxone to someone experiencing an overdose. The department has now trained 800 people including 100 law enforcement professionals, to administer naloxone. Now, Goeller says they want to make sure the medication is provided to those most at risk for an overdose.
“One of those times is when they’ve been drug free for a period of time,” she said.
That’s what happens when a person is incarcerated, she explained. They’re drug free while they’re in jail, but their chances of an overdose are high when they’re released. She says that’s because if they do go to use drugs, they tend to use them at the same level they did prior to incarceration in spite of the fact that their tolerance has now decreased.
“They use at the same level and it rapidly becomes an overdose,” she said.
While the health department has offered naloxone training to prisoners in the past, within the next 60 days it will begin putting naloxone kits in the hands of prisoners with a history of drug abuse when they’re released.
“We want to not only make sure they’ve had training, but that if they want a naloxone kit it will be given to them,” she said.
Goeller said the department was also working to provide Atlantic General Hospital’s emergency department with naloxone to offer to overdose patients and their families. She expects that program to be in place within 90 days.
“Another high risk category of people for overdosing is people who have already overdosed once,” she said. “It’s important that when individuals are taken to the hospital for an overdose that some preventative measures for the future take place.”
While naloxone critics argue that it’s no cure to the heroin epidemic—it saves lives but doesn’t keep people from using drugs—the health department is simply working to address the fourth-leading cause of death in Maryland.
“It’s been named as a public health epidemic because people are overdosing to the point that it results in fatalities,” said Christina Purcell, behavioral health program manager at the health department.
Naloxone, she said, was a strategy to reduce harm. While treatment works, individuals have to make a decision to enter into treatment. She says naloxone gives them a chance to make that choice.
“If it helps save their life to give them another day to make a decision to get into treatment, we feel it’s something we need to do,” she said. “In and of itself it does not cure the addiction. It buys more time and more opportunities for people to come to that point in their life they can recover.”
In addition to making naloxone more accessible, Goeller says the health department is working on a community opioid response plan. The document will be presented at the county’s annual health conference April 5.
“We feel like that’s going to be really helpful,” she said, adding that it would identify the actions being taken by various agencies throughout the county. “It’ll help us not duplicate efforts. It’ll pinpoint any gaps we have. It’ll make sure all the various groups know who’s doing what.”
Goeller’s department is also in the process of kicking off the second part of its “Decisions Matter” opioid abuse awareness program. The campaign will use television and radio advertisements to share the message that addiction is a disease and recovery is a decision.
Beyond that, Goeller said the health department was constantly working to reallocate resources to address opioid abuse, as it was a problem in Worcester County as well as nationwide.
“With this epidemic, our personnel resources have been stretched as far as we can stretch them,” she said. “We’re looking across the whole department and redirecting resources to this effort.”
She believes health officials are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
“We’d certainly be very happy if we’d be able to turn the situation around,” she said. “We have not been able to turn it around yet.”
The department will continue to offer training on how to administer naloxone. Sessions are offered at the library in Ocean Pines the fourth Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. Sessions are offered the second and fourth Friday of each month in Snow Hill at the health department. For more information call (410) 632-1100.