Narcan has brought back countless opioid and heroin addicts from the brink of death, restoring their breathing and giving them a chance to seek treatment. Erie County’s Department of Health in November launched a program making the FDA-approved drug even more accessible, and that means county residents will start seeing it in some unlikely places.
Orchard Park Presbyterian Church is one.
Today there are three unlocked, metal wall boxes filled with Narcan in the affluent suburban church building. There’s one right in the sanctuary - the room with the altar. There’s even a Narcan box on the wall just down the hall from where kids go to Sunday school.
"I think it’s completely wonderful,” said Susan Brennan, a member of the congregation whose grandchildren also spend a lot of time at the church, including at Sunday school.
“I think the progressiveness of this church, hopefully other people will see that it’s such a life-saving measure.”
Brennan knows first-hand the pain that opioid addiction can wreak on a family. After years of struggling with an opioid addiction, her daughter, Julie Neuwirth, died in August of a drug overdose. She was 37. She left behind six children, five of whom Brennan cares for now.
Neuwirth was first introduced to opioids when her doctor prescribed her Lortab for a back injury. It’s a highly addictive painkiller made with the opioid hydrocodone.
“She went to the doctor and they gave her Lortabs and it just progressed from there, trying cocaine with Lortabs and then heroin,” recalled Brennan. “And then it just became everything – anything and everything she could get her hands on.”
Before all that, Neuwirth, an athlete, led a more typical life, her mother said. “She was on the swim team, the best point guard on the basketball team, led a normal life. It all changed.”
Narcan revived Neuwirth many times. The FDA-approved drug restores breathing for people overdosing on opioids.
“She was Narcan-ed, I mean, seven or eight times, and that always brought her back and gave her another chance,” Brennan said.
Opioid Deaths Falling in Erie County
Narcan is a nasal spray, a brand name form of naloxone. It comes in a little pre-filled, single-dose container that fits up one nostril. Today, it’s available without a prescription from pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS.
In Erie County, 301 people died in 2016 of opioid-related causes. County data shows opioid-related deaths were down in 2018 to 191, and the numbers have dropped steadily since.
A sign on a door at the Erie County Health Department reads, “Keep calm and carry naloxone.” The goal of the wall box program is to ensure that even when people do not carry it, it’s available.
The county received 500 Narcan wall units through the U.S. Substance Abuse Mental Health Agency, one of the federal agencies that distributes funds for opioid-related efforts. Orchard Park Presbyterian is one of many establishments throughout the county that requested the free wall boxes. That means county residents will start seeing them on walls alongside Automated External Defibrillators, or AEDs, at schools and community centers, fast-food restaurants and bars, union halls and construction sites.
“Overdoses are happening in communities we don’t expect,” said County Health Department Opioid Program Manager Cheryll Moore.
Unexpected Risks in Unexpected Places
She highlighted the morphing risks of opioids – risks that could be affecting people who may not realize it, such as occasional cocaine users.
“Cocaine – it’s being cut with fentanyl today,” said Moore, describing the synthetic opioid as a different type of drug than cocaine, which many perceive as a harmless social drug. “People who tell you they don’t do drugs and they’re like, ‘Oh, I just did a little line’ – you can’t do this. So getting this out in social areas, where people claim they don’t do drugs… the Narcan is there.”
Work sites are another place where opioid addiction has become a reality, she continued.
“Think of construction, think of people with very physical jobs," she said. "They’ve been injured, they can no longer access their prescriptions, they transition to street drugs. The disease of opioid use disorder isn’t about a party.”
While Narcan can revive someone who’s passed out from an overdose, it won’t harm someone who is not addicted to opioids or takes it accidentally, such as a curious kid. Indeed, Moore said she herself takes Narcan when training people how to use it.
“It doesn’t do anything but taste terrible,” she laughed, describing the aftereffect of the nasal drip. “If you give it to the wrong person, you’re not going to hurt them.”
Orchard Park Presbyterian’s Faith Community Nurse Sherry Pomeroy said even though the drug is intended to revive heroin and opioid addicts, there has been no opposition to posting the Narcan wall units in the church facility, even where little kids congregate. One reason: education.
“So many folks thought this was an urban city problem,” said Pomeroy, who has led efforts at the church since 2015 to teach members about the risks of opioid painkillers, the potential for addiction and the need to destigmatize the disease.
In 2016, about 40 people attended the church’s first Narcan training, though she said no one has used Narcan provided at the church to recover from an overdose.
“The people who come here are used to us doing these things," she said. "I think that’s one reason there isn’t pushback. It’s not like, all of a sudden a Narcan box; we’ve done all this education.”
Ultimately, said Moore, the county’s Narcan wall box distribution effort is intended to familiarize people with Narcan and the opportunity for treatment.
“Part of what it’s doing is normalizing the disease process – the same thing as with an AED," Moore said. "When [AED’s] first came out, nobody knew what they were; we were all afraid. Today they’re very common. They understand it’s a life-saving mechanism and that’s the same thing we’ve been working on with Narcan.”
There are around 100 wall units still available for establishments that request them. The Erie County Health Department hopes to attract additional funding for more of them.
“So just getting the accessibility out there, getting people a chance for treatment,” said Moore. “If people aren’t alive, they don’t get a chance. It’s really that simple.”