Overdose-reversing drug credited with saving more than 140 lives in Oklahoma, and its use is expanding

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Naloxone is credited with saving more than 100 lives in Oklahoma. Photo courtesy News9
The call came through Norman dispatch in August 2016. Two men had been using heroin when one of them started showing signs of an overdose.

When police officers arrived, the man wasn’t breathing and had turned blue. An officer quickly administered naloxone through a nasal spray, and shortly after, the man began to breathe again.

With the nation’s opioid epidemic in mind, Lt. Lee McWhorter of the Norman Police Department said the agency has equipped its officers with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

“Essentially that epidemic has come this way, so we decided to be proactive,” Lee said.

Naloxone, often sold under the brand name Narcan, can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose when used in a timely manner.

Accessing naloxone in Oklahoma and the U.S. has become easier in recent years. The drug has made its way into law enforcement agencies, clinics, fire departments and pharmacies across the state.

The drug is credited with saving the lives of more than 100 people in Oklahoma, and health professionals say they hope the drug’s availability will soon expand into other areas.

‘Great strides’
Oklahoma’s unintentional overdose death rate involving prescription opioids decreased by 28 percent from 2007 to 2016, according to data provided by ODMHSAS. Still, prescription opioids are the most common substance involved in unintentional overdoses in the state.

Preliminary data released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month suggests overdose deaths increased by 12 percent in Oklahoma from 2016 to 2017. The number rose from 752 to 844, the preliminary data shows.

The incident in Norman was one of two times the police department has administered naloxone since August, McWhorter said.

Statewide, the drug has saved the lives of at least 143 people who overdosed on opioids — 93 through law enforcement administrations and more than 50 through kits available to the public, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

And as more law enforcement agencies have started carrying the drug, its use has spiked.

In 2014, agencies administered naloxone 15 times, according to ODMHSAS data. That number jumped to 46 last year. Law enforcement have already used the drug at least 15 times this year.

ODMHSAS has trained nearly 200 agencies to use naloxone and doled out more than 4,000 kits.

Andrea Hamor Edmonson, prevention program manager for ODMHSAS, said she believes there’s less stigma surrounding substance use issues, which has helped accessibility to naloxone spread.

“I think it really speaks to just a huge shift in the way that people think about the opioid problem and think about community policing, think about how do we treat people who are mistreating drugs,” Hamor Edmonson said.

“I think around naloxone people are really making great strides.”

In January, the Oklahoma Commission on Opioid Abuse issued its final report, which recommended expanding the state’s use and availability of naloxone.

The Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association earlier this month equipped sheriff’s offices with naloxone and offered training to administer it. And agents with the state attorney general’s office were trained and supplied with the drug on Tuesday.

Agency spokesman Alex Gerszewski said the AG’s office received 10 naloxone kits to go into the cars of agents delivering subpoenas or making arrests. ODMHSAS and the Tulsa Police Department administered the training.

The drug also has become more accessible to people vulnerable to overdoses and their families.

Naloxone first became available without a prescription in pharmacies in 2015, and the drug is free in dozens of clinics across the state.

In recent years, all Walgreens, CVS and most Walmart pharmacies started to carry the drug. Medicaid covers the cost of naloxone in Oklahoma.

Dr. Jason Beaman, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, said the organization is working with ODMHSAS to get naloxone into emergency rooms.

Emergency room health care providers would give take-home naloxone kits to patients who could be at risk of an opioid overdose.

Oklahoma State Center for Health Sciences. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Doctors across the U.S. are increasingly prescribing the drug to patients with a prescription for opioids.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association in recent years have issued guidance recommending doctors co-prescribe naloxone when a patient may be at risk for an overdose.

People with prescriptions for a high dose of opioids, a history of substance-use disorders or those who also have a prescription for benzodiazepine are at higher risk of an overdose.

Beaman said he doesn’t believe doctors in the Tulsa area have begun the practice of co-prescribing. However, there is a growing awareness of the idea.

“I think a lot of doctors just think it’s not going to happen with their patient,” he said.

Hamor Edmonson said although naloxone’s accessibility is a step in the right director for Oklahoma, it’s only one piece of the puzzle in combating the opioid epidemic.

“Preventing overdose death is incredibly important, we need to do that,” she said. “But I also feel like it’s important to get ahead of the problem. When somebody is overdosing and getting treatment those things are great. But everybody would be better off if we can intervene even sooner.”

Read next:

For opioid crisis in Oklahoma, some look to telemedicine

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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