For the first time in Juneau, people at risk of overdosing from heroin or other opiates can access a lifesaving medicine for free starting June 27.
“Our hope is that we can help to save lives,” said Kathryn Chapman, executive director of National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Juneau. “People are dying.”
On Tuesday, Chapman and her staff were at their office putting together 100 overdose prevention kits.
“We’ve got a sticker in the front that gives three basic simple steps of what to do — call 911, start rescue breathing and then give naloxone,” Chapman explained.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a prescription medicine that reverses an opioid overdose.
“The effect of opiate overdose is that the drug is paralyzing the respiratory system and people stop breathing and they die,” said NCADD Juneau’s Kristin Cox. “When you administer the naloxone, people will almost immediately start breathing.”
If a person doesn’t have any opiates in their system, naloxone is harmless and has no effect, Cox said.
Each kit comes with two vials of naloxone, two safety syringes, a brochure with detailed instructions and a card that says the person administering the naloxone has received training.
“These kits need to go into the hands of opiate users and into the hands of people who are living with opiate users that have a potential for overdose,” Chapman said.
Each kit costs $33 to put together, but through a $3,600 grant from the Juneau Community Foundation, NCADD Juneau is able to distribute them for free. A person can pick one up and receive a short training at NCADD Juneau’s downtown office at 211 Fourth St. between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., or arrange another time outside those hours.
“We’re not going to take down their name or anything, and we don’t need to know the details of what’s going on in their life. We want people to feel safe and comfortable to come get this kit, and we will provide them with a training on how to recognize the signs of an overdose and what the steps are in response to an overdose,” Chapman said.
NCADD Juneau had been preparing to start the overdose prevention program, Chapman said, but was just waiting on Senate Bill 23, sponsored by Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage. The bill, passed this session by the Alaska Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker in March, makes it easier for people to get and administer naloxone.
“A year ago, we started the process because we recognized that overdose is common among opiate users. At that time there was some hesitancy moving forward with an overdose prevention program because that protection against liability wasn’t in place yet,” Chapman said. “It was exciting when (SB 23) became a law because we were able to roll this out immediately.”
Prior to the kits, a person could access naloxone from a doctor or emergency responder. Chapman knows of no other programs in the capital city that distributes the medicine.
NCADD Juneau also plans to give the kits to people who access the organization for help with a substance abuse disorder.
“If I’m doing an assessment on somebody who’s using opiates and I feel like it would be a good lifesaving tool for them to have, I could teach them right there on the spot and provide them with a kit,” NCADD Juneau’s clinical director Chelsi Butler said.
A person overdosing cannot self-administer naloxone; they are dependent on someone else to give the medicine. The kit itself is a sharps container where the used needles can be disposed properly. It’s imperative to keep the needles away from children.
“You definitely want to protect the kit because if you need it and you have no needles, it’s useless to you,” Cox said.
In 2015, at least seven people in Juneau died from heroin or other opioid overdose, either as an underlying or contributing cause. A cluster of fatalities started in May, said Juneau Police Department Lt. Kris Sell. Capital City Fire/Rescue administered naloxone 52 times to 34 different people.
There’s been only one drug overdose fatality in Juneau this year, and CCFR has given naloxone 18 times to 15 different people.
“We are not on the same track that we were in 2015,” Sell said on the phone Tuesday.
But that doesn’t mean people aren’t using.
“The drug use is now so obvious to the public because of all the break-ins and burglaries. They might be using less, but its still a really expensive industry. It would be hard to find a burglary that’s not tied to drugs,” she said.
Sell said she didn’t know enough about the NCADD Juneau overdose prevention program to comment on it, but she added, “I certainly think surviving an overdose is a good idea but I don’t want people to mistake the use of (naloxone) with treating a heroin addiction. It’s not the same.”
NCADD Juneau agrees. Along with the kit, the organization is distributing a flier called “Path to Recovery,” which outlines different Juneau resources for different stages of treatment and recovery.
“Our system of care is confusing in Juneau and so if you’re a family member and you have a son who’s struggling with addiction or substance abuse, you wonder, ‘Where do I go? Who do I call? And, how does this process work?’ because it is a process and a lot of people don’t understand that. This tool is to illustrate the process,” Chapman said.
NCADD Juneau is also recruiting for a clinician position to serve as a community and recovery support coordinator. It’s a brand new job, also funded through a Juneau Community Foundation grant.
NCADD Juneau’s Kristin Cox said the organization hopes to make the overdose prevention kits a sustainable program through community donations and a GoFundMe campaign.
“You have to keep addicts alive so they have the opportunity to get treatment. Dead people don’t get treatment,” she said. “There’s always help and hope for people to get treatment and to recover.”
• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.