Clark County has seen a record number of overdose deaths this year. But widespread use of the antidote Narcan is also allowing many people who overdose to survive and use again, increasing their risk of dying the next time.
To help curb overdose deaths, mental health advocates, county first responders and addiction specialists are collaborating on a new approach aimed at quickly connecting these high-risk addicts to treatment.
The typical approach to an overdose is for first responders to administer the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, the brand name of the medication naloxone, until the victim has revived.
At Springfield fire department headquarters, Fire Chief Nick Heimlich says sometimes it takes as many as eight doses of the overdose-blocker to resuscitate a single victim.
And, when they wake up, many people resist further treatment.
“They’re anxious, they want to get away, they don’t want to talk to anybody," he says, "and what we have effectively done is move the clock forward to their next need for the drug because their body now is going through withdrawal. And withdrawal means I’m sick, and the only way I’m not sick is if I use.”
Heimlich says many Springfield medical crews are growing frustrated by how rapidly some overdose victims begin using drugs again.
“They are checking out of the hospital emergency department against medical advice, before we’re even restocked and are back in our ambulances and on the street. There’s nothing to catch them, right?”
So, to fix this problem, Clark County first responders are testing a new method called the Warm Hand-Off program.
Here’s how it works: in an overdose situation, EMT’s and paramedics administer less Narcan. This method is designed to slow down the time it takes for the victim to wake up. And that gives hospital staff more time to contact a mental health counselor.
Officials say the hope is to link addicts who survive an overdose with recovery services even before they can leave the hospital.
“And then this therapist and peer support specialist go in and say ‘hey, we care about you, we’re worried, we know you just overdosed, and this is a plan,“ says Wendy Doolittle, CEO of the nonprofit Springfield addiction treatment agency McKinley Hall.
She says $26 billion in federal opioid epidemic funding is helping to pay for two additional on-call counselors for the program. Doolittle says overdose victims who agree to enter drug treatment are able to get into programs right away.
“When you’re released we’re gonna take you to our safehouse that’s staffed 24/7, and we’re gonna find you a residential bed, and we’re gonna keep you on medicine that will help you stabilize and enter into your recovery,” she says.
Chief Heimlich says he hopes this new approach will help the city address some of the root causes of the overdose death rate.
“The solution isn’t to go to the citizens and ask for more paramedics and more Narcan to treat more addicts. That’s not the solution. That’s just managing the process. The solution is to slow and then cut off the pipeline,” he says.
The Warm Hand-Off program launched September 1, 2017. Officials say it’s too soon to know for sure whether the program will have a lasting impact on Clark County’s severe overdose epidemic.