Access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, has been a high priority for Humboldt County officials, health care organizations and nonprofits since officials noticed the rate of overdose deaths locally was three times higher than the national rate. That’s been the case for the past 15 years.
According to the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Education Specialist Beth Wells, the county has made efforts to expand access to naloxone.
“The county has been providing overdose prevention and response training since 2003,” Wells said. “Any community member can receive training and naloxone for free through several institutions including the Redwoods Rural Health Center in Garberville, the North Coast AIDS Project and the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction. People can also attend training which lasts about 20 minutes. They learn how to recognize an overdose and respond to it.”
Wells said it’s important to realize Narcan only works with opioid overdoses like heroin, morphine, Oxycotin, codeine and other prescription opioids, but does not work with methamphetamine or drugs like Valium and Xanax.
“Narcan blocks opioid receptors in the brain,” Wells said. “Opioids relax the body to the point that a person doesn’t breathe. Narcan blocks that from happening. The duration of this overdose drug lasts between 45 to 90 minutes. Afterwards the overdose can resume if proper medical help is not given.”
Wells said outreach has been a major factor in helping people survive overdoses.
Wells said ambulances, the Arcata Police Department and the Humboldt State University Police Department currently use naloxone to combat overdose situations they encounter and the county hopes to provide the drug to more local law enforcement and volunteer fire departments in the future.
According to Arcata police Sgt. Chris Ortega, the APD was the first law enforcement agency in Humboldt County to carry and administer naloxone to reverse opiate overdoses. Ortega said officers received training from Public Health on how to identify and respond to overdoses using Narcan, which is given by a nasal spray that is absorbed quickly and reverses an opiate overdose in minutes.
Recent statistics from the California Health Care Foundation placed Humboldt County fourth among California counties for opiate overdose deaths and first for opiate overdose hospitalizations, according to a news release from the APD.
Since the department’s access to naloxone, officers were able to revive an unconscious 29-year-old man who exhibited symptoms of a heroin overdose in August 2016.
Stigma and cost
Accessibility for naloxone has proven to be not just reactionary but also preventative, especially for pharmacies in the area.
Pharmacist Bryan Coleman of Cloney’s Pharmacy said access is certainly an issue the county is trying to address on multiple levels, but negative stigma of overdoses could keep people away from attaining it.
“We’re about 500 feet from St. Joseph’s Hospital,” Coleman said. “During an active overdose, the hospital has them get a prescription from the ER. The fact is, some people feel ashamed if they come in with a prescription for Narcan. I don’t personally care why you’re getting (Narcan), I care whether or not you have access to it.”
Coleman said that although naloxone is available through Medi-Cal, it could take six months for a pharmacy to bill them and that one test kit could cost about $200.
The cost of naloxone is one obstacle that Brandie Wilson and the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction strive to overcome by providing education and distribution of naloxone along with several harm reduction services to the public.
Wilson said HACHR intends to provide comprehensive community wide education, advocacy, empowerment and support for drug users and high risk communities.
“In 2016, we were able to do 112 overdose reversals through naloxone,” she said. “The overdose rates in Humboldt County are the worst in California and the West Coast and the state is feeling the brunt of the opioid crisis.”
She said that the cost-prohibitive nature of the medication required more funding.
“More funding must be available to support and offset the costs of naloxone,” Wilson said. “Similar to the EpiPen cost increase, naloxone has also gone up in price. It is the fault of limited tax revenue over the past decades that hasn’t allowed us to fund for these types of programs that provide overdose reversal drugs and detox for people who are the most vulnerable.”
Natalya Estrada can be reached at 707-441-0510.