TACOMA, Wash. – The opioid epidemic is hitting Washington state hard. These days, most of us know someone who’s been affected in some way, either as addicts themselves or the victim of crime related to addiction.
Now, there are two local efforts to try and fight back. The Pierce County prosecutor is taking this battle to court to sue not one but three opioid makers, accusing them of being complicit in the crisis that’s killing hundreds of people in our state every year.
Tacoma’s fire department is taking things a step further. It’s giving away free Narcan kits. It’s a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Since 2013, the Tacoma Fire Department has seen a 50% increase in having to use an opioid overdose antidote, Narcan. Now it’s working to put that life-saving drug into more hands.
“What we’ve done in the past isn’t necessarily working today or in the future,” said Tacoma Fire Department Medical Services Officer Mike Newhouse.
It’s a new action plan for Tacoma Fire first responders to tackle the growing opioid problem in the city. Instead of giving overdosing addicts a shot of Narcan and then sending them to the emergency department, paramedics will give addicts Narcan kits.
“This can prevent the heart from stopping in the first place. And the restoration of life is much more challenging than the prevention of death,” said Newhouse.
The addict can go home with the kit, not just with the nasal spray but reading materials about how to use them and how to spot an overdose. Plus, another blue card with resources and a promised follow-up call from professionals.
“About who to call, what next steps to take,” said Newhouse.
“We have this existing program that can help them navigate through the health care system to find that medically supervised treatment,” said Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan.
But a life-threatening close call with death might not be an instant wake-up call for an addict. After overdosing some 20 times, former heroin addict Michael Polgar lost count.
“I once overdosed and woke up in Harborview and still had some in my sock. And as soon as I was revived and stable, they let me go to the restroom, I used again, and they had to revive me again,” said Polgar.
Stories like that are why some argue Narcan is just a Band-Aid or a tool that enables addiction, but the fire department says it’s new kit isn’t about judging someone’s choices.
“We’re looking now at opioid addiction as a medical problem and not as moral failing,” said Duggan.
Polgar says it is what kept him alive and gave him the chance to get sober and better his life.
“November 2, 2011 -- from that point on I’ve been able to maintain drug free,” said Polgar.
That’s the goal for other addicts still struggling.
“We’re providing not only the medication, not only the referral information, but also hope,” said Duggan.
The fire department has already used 27 out of 30 kits. The pilot program started Monday. The funding didn’t come out of taxpayers’ dollars in the fire department’s budget, but rather from a statewide grant specifically set aside to fight the opioid crisis. You can pick up naloxone or Narcan kits at your local needle exchange organization. The fire department is not handing out kits to the public.