As Erie County health officials find hope in signs of a decline in opioid-related deaths, one of the key methods of combating the epidemic continues to be trained – identifying the signs of overdose and learning how to reverse it. And for every reason out there to train, it all comes down to wanting to save a life.
On a weekday evening in the basement of Hamburg Methodist Church where wood paneling lines light green painted walls, Erie County Public Health Educator John Gaeddert begins a training session on how to recognize the signs of an opioid overdose.
“Now we have all heard about how the epidemic hits places like West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio. We might not have thought about Western New York,” Gaeddert tells his audience. “In grades of severity, we are in the most severe category. Niagara County is not much better.”
From 2012 to 2017, Erie County saw a total of 1,139 opioid related deaths. Year-to-year, the numbers rose sharply from 2015 to 2016 – a trend seen not only locally, but across New York and more than half the states across the country.
“So it really is a national problem. It’s hitting everyone – whether they realize it directly or indirectly,” said Gaeddert.
Since June of 2014, Erie County has been providing training sessions like this one to first responders and the public. In addition to the signs of an opioid overdose, they’re taught how to administer the reversal drug naloxone – more commonly known by the brand name NARCAN.
On this particular night, Gaeddert has an audience of about 32 people, and everyone’s got a different reason for coming.
Olivia Khangi recently became an Explorer in the Lancaster Ambulance Corps.
“I’m under 18 and I ride along with the Ambulance Corps. I basically get to witness the calls, and I also am able to participate in anything I’m certified with,” explained Khangi. “So now that I’m certified with this, I can participate in a participate in any call that would have an overdose.”
As a relative rookie, Khangi has yet to see her first OD on the job, but anticipates she will at some point.
Others like Hahkien Spencer from Buffalo have seen it first-hand. While chairs were being stacked after the training, he recalled what drove him there.
“I live in Riverside, and it’s getting pretty bad over there with the drugs. So, you know, a few years ago somebody overdosed and they left him outside on the sidewalk. And he deceased, right there,” said Spencer.
Both the training, and doses of NARCAN, expire after two years. So for Spencer, this was the second time getting certified. He never had to use his first dose, and considers himself fortunate for it.
“As heartbreaking as it is to have to do this, somebody has to do something,” he said.
State laws and funding programs have made NARCAN more accessible to the public since 2014. New York’s public health law allows anyone to access NARCAN at local pharmacies.
“You can walk into any drug store, you can present your prescription card like you would pick up any other prescription. They will look and see what’s covered under your plan. NARCAN comes in four different formats. All plans don’t necessarily cover the same format, but they cover something - they have to cover NARCAN,” explained Erie County Health Department Medical Care Administrator Cheryll Moore.
Among those formats, the methods of administering it have gotten easier, too – from injections, to atomizers, to today’s one-pump nasal spray. And certifications and re-certifications for its use in Erie County have hit 25,000.
This session in Hamburg was sponsored by an addiction recovery support group known as “Sparks of Hope.” Its coordinator, Lynda Sentz said the event not only helps prepare people to reverse overdoses – it also helps to change public opinion around addiction.
“A lot of times people will say, ‘You know, they’ve made this choice, let them go.’ But these are people – these are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, friends,” said Sentz. “And we’ve lost people from our recovery center, and that leaves a hole. We’ve got a lot of holes in our community and it doesn’t have to be that way. This is a good step towards breaking the stigma and breaking the epidemic, breaking the cycle, get these people some help.”
Erie County saw a relative victory last year, when deaths related to opioids dropped by 50. As of mid-September this year, only 104 have been recorded, but 78 more cases are suspected. Part of the decrease is being credited a drop in prescribing of the opioid hydrocodone, but NARCAN training is also a piece of that potential success and one the county continues to promote heavily.
More information on free community trainings in opioid overdose recognition and the use of Naloxone (NARCAN) for reversal is available at the Erie County Department of Health website.
Looking for more information about opioids and NARCAN? Here are some of the sites WBFO’s Avery Schneider used in his research:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Drug Overdose Death Data
- Shots, Health News From NPR: Jump In Overdoses Shows Opioid Epidemic Has Worsened
- Surgeon General’s Advisory on Naloxone and Opioid Overdose
- Single-Step Nasal Spray Naloxone Easiest to Deliver According to Binghamton University Researcher
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: What is Naloxone?