JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — An increase in overdoses from drugs believed to be laced with fentanyl has the region on high alert. Community prevention and recovery experts are trying to get a potentially life-saving medication in the hands of as many people as they can.
Two clusters of overdoses in Johnson City — one on Labor Day weekend, the another this past weekend — left several people dead and numerous others recovering after using drugs suspected to have fentanyl in them.
Those deaths, as well as trips to the hospital, could potentially have been avoided if people had administered naloxone, a medication that can reverse an overdose of opioids when given in time.
That’s one reason Kahla Cobb of the Sullivan County Anti-Drug Coalition was at the Johnson City Public Library (JCPL) Wednesday afternoon distributing “overdose kits” that included Narcan, a nasal spray version of naloxone.
Also inside the small pouches were fentanyl test strips that can be used to determine if a purchased drug is laced with the extremely dangerous synthetic opioid.
After this recent surge in overdoses, drug prevention advocates say people and businesses need to have those kits. It’s part of a technique called harm reduction, limiting the risk of death for drug users.
They say you never know when you might need it.
“I feel like it’s good for everyone to carry on them just in case, but really the high-risk individuals,” said Cobb, the coalition’s project coordinator. “People that are in addiction at the time or their family members or any of their friends and loved ones — because it can affect everyone.”
By the time Cobb and partners from Insight Alliance of Washington County left JCPL, more than 50 kits had been distributed. Many of the recipients had seen fentanyl overdoses hit close to home.
“I have friends of friends who are in the hospital and have overdosed,” Carolina Pack said. “It’s just really scary.”
Pack says she got the kit to be ready in a worst-case scenario.
“You have to be prepared for stuff like that, and I think it’s good to make everyone aware of how to make it safe.”
Frankie Nunley, a peer recovery specialist from Insight Alliance, told News Channel 11 that some people have questioned whether promoting Narcan simply enables misuse of drugs. She said the long-term objective is always recovery and a life in which people aren’t abusing drugs.
“When somebody’s dead we can’t help them any further. When they’re alive, Narcan provides that opportunity to get them the help they need.”
And Jennifer Berven, Insight Alliance’s director, said studies have actually shown that people with more access to harm reduction strategies including naloxone are actually more likely to eventually enter recovery programs.
Anyone who administers naloxone is protected under a Good Samaritan law that protects the individual giving the medication from civil liability.
Nunley said the effort is particularly important now as fentanyl appears in more substances, including non-opioids like marijuana and cocaine whose users often don’t have any tolerance built up to opioids. That leaves them at greater risk of overdose from smaller amounts.
“It was pressed in pills to now it’s in marijuana. It’s in methamphetamines. It’s all out there.”
That’s why they say getting more people to understand harm reduction and carry Narcan is so important. In addition to distributing kits, Cobb was offering brief trainings on how to use the Narcan and test strips.
She said many people remain unaware of the problem’s extent and the availability of Narcan, and that’s who they hope to reach.
“People that maybe don’t know about it. Communities, if they don’t talk about it within each other. The word of mouth is how are people finding out right that it’s even available.”
In the end, it’s about preventing death in order to give people an eventual opportunity to recover, Nunley said.
“The disease of addiction is a lot harder than what a lot of people know of, so [we’re] getting the word out there to help them be able to stay alive so when they are ready they have another chance.”
Insight Alliance plans to return to JCPL every third Wednesday of the month to distribute Narcan. More about the fentanyl problem and how to respond to an overdose are at the Alliance’s website.