That would amount to a remarkable expansion of the city’s efforts to saturate overdose-heavy neighborhoods with naloxone, a nasal spray that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. During the last nine months of 2017 — a period when overdose deaths peaked in the District — the city distributed just 2,396 kits.
News of the distribution efforts came in an updated plan to tackle the District’s opioid crisis that was scheduled to be released Thursday afternoon by the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
“You can throw out a bunch of goals that are lofty, that sound good, but if they’re not followed by a strategy or strategic plan with action steps that make sense, you will fail,” Turnage said Thursday. He said the updated plan was being developed internally but was made public in response to lawmakers’ concerns.
“They were always working on these things,” he said.
Unlike in rural and suburban areas commonly associated with the opioid epidemic, in the District, victims are predominantly older black men who have used heroin for decades.
The District recorded 279 opioid overdose deaths in 2017, more than three times the number of opioid deaths in 2014. The number dropped to 213 in 2018, according to the mayor’s new plan — a figure that still surpassed the city’s homicides.
In December, The Washington Post published a series about the city’s lackluster response to rising heroin overdoses, most of which were caused by the lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl. The District’s missteps included distributing naloxone at far lower rates than other cities with comparable opioid problems and bungling $4 million in federal grant funds.
D.C. lawmakers also called a hearing on the administration’s response to opioid deaths and demanded details from the mayor about how she would reach her goal of cutting those fatalities in half by 2020.
Turnage said 20,000 naloxone kits have already been supplied to those who will distribute them to the public, including 15,000 kits to D.C. police.
City officials could not provide a cost estimate for the new naloxone kits on Thursday. But the kits typically sell in bulk for about $75 apiece and at that rate, the District could spend close to $6 million for the medication it plans to distribute this year.
In addition to the new details on the naloxone program, Bowser’s updated plan provides an April 30 deadline for the launch of another key program — the treatment of recent overdose victims at three hospital emergency rooms.
Those hospitals — United Medical Center, MedStar Washington Hospital Center and Howard University Hospital — plan to offer buprenorphine, a medication that diminishes opioid cravings and serves as a component of long-term addiction treatment, to overdose victims brought to their emergency rooms.
Similar efforts have been launched at other hospitals across the country, based on a 2015 study at Yale New Haven Hospital that showed users who begin buprenorphine treatment during visits to the emergency room often have more success in recovery.
Earlier this month, a spokesman for Howard University Hospital said its buprenorphine program would not launch until July.
However, Turnage said Thursday that Howard, like the other hospitals, would be held to the April 30 deadline and any delays “would not be acceptable.”
Asked about Turnage’s comments on Thursday, a Howard spokesman said that the hospital’s buprenorphine program would be up and running by the end of April.