The District will increase its supply of naloxone, the drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, in an attempt to curb the growing number of opioid-related deaths, city officials said Friday.
The D.C. Department of Health distributed 1,000 naloxone kits in 2016 as part of a pilot program, which prevented at least 290 residents from fatally overdosing, officials said.
The city will now provide an additional 2,500 naloxone kits, which officials predict will last about 10 months, to two community health organizations that work with drug users.
D.C. Department of Health will monitor use of thekits to better gauge the need, officials said.
Opioid-related deaths in the city have nearly tripled in the past two years — from 83 in 2014 to 231 in 2016.
“Anything the city can do to increase the availability of naloxone is amazing, because we’ve been experiencing shortages since the program started,” said Cyndee Clay, executive director of HIPS, formerly known as Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, one of the organizations that is receiving naloxone from the city. HIPS will distribute kits to individuals who request them, with priority given to drug-users. Each kit contains two doses of naloxone.
HIPS, which is located on H Street NE, provides a 15-minute training on how to administer the intranasal spray, often referred to by its brand name “Narcan.”
“There is a lot of interest and a high demand, so it’s been frustrating not to be able to meet that,” said Clay, who added that HIPS has received donations of naloxone from the manufacturer, but those donations “haven’t been able to fill the gap.”
Kaitlyn Boecker, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance, praised the increased availability of naloxone but said the District lags behind Maryland and Virginia, where naloxone is available at pharmacies without a prescription.
The D.C. pilot program “really just targets places with syringe exchange programs,” Boecker said. “It’s proven that friends and family are the best people to administer naloxone when there’s an overdose, but it’s really not accessible to the broader community in D.C. yet.”
The rapid increase in opioid-related deaths in the District, part of a growing national crisis, is directly related to the introduction of synthetic opiates like fentanyl that are blended into heroin or being used as a substitute, said Chief Medical Examiner Roger Mitchell said. Fentanylcan be as much as 1,000 times stronger than heroin, he added.
Black men between 40 and 60 years old make up the majority of opioid-related deaths in the District. Most deaths have occurred in Ward 7, but Wards 5, 6 and 8 have also been hit hard, Mitchell said.
“There are people in our city who may have been using heroin for decades, let me just be frank,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at a news conference Friday. “The message we’re sending them is that there are different drugs in the supply that you cannot manage, and one dose could kill you.”
Bowser and District health officials spoke Friday at Family and Medical Counseling Service in Southeast, which is also distributing the naloxone.
HIPS and Family and Medical Counseling Service run needle-exchange programs that provide drug users with clean needles. The needle-exchange program helped reduce the number of new drug-related HIV cases from 149 in 2007 to seven in 2016, city officials said.
Heroin surpassed cocaine as the second most-used drug in the city, after alcohol, by the beginning of 2016, said Tanya A. Royster, the director of the city’s Department of Behavioral Health.
The city will launch a campaign this fall to alert longtime heroin users of the new dangers posed by synthetic opiates like fentanyl, she said. Ads will also focus on the dangers of abusing prescription opiates.
Prescription opiate abuse is not a major problem in the District as it is elsewhere, but city officials have noticed “some peaks” in abuse and are hoping to head off the problem before it grows, Royster said.
Retired nurse Billie Tyler distributes clean needles and naloxone from her car.
Today, even the drug dealers sometimes “have no clue what they’re dealing,” Tyler said.
“In the old days, heroin was tested by a tester and cut depending on how they could make a profit,” said Tyler, who has lived in the District since 1968. “They don’t seem to be testing anymore. It’s coming from outside D.C., and it’s already packaged when they get it.”
Tyler trains everyone she provides with naloxone how to administer the drug, which she said she obtains outside D.C. but would not say where or how. When an overdose occurs, the first thing to do is to call 9-1-1, but naloxone can be lifesaving when the ambulance takes 40 minutes to arrive, she said.
“It makes me furious that the public doesn’t know how bad this is,” Tyler said.