NEW BETHLEHEM — About 20 residents of the New Bethlehem area participated in a Narcan training session on Wednesday evening. The two-hour event, held at the First Church of God, instructed attendees on the opioid epidemic and the administration of the life-saving drug Naloxone.
Jill Northey, a prevention specialist from the Armstrong-Clarion-Indiana Drug and Alcohol Commission, and Randall Stom, Clarion County coroner, said that the Narcan program not only saves the lives of drug users but also those of family, friends, law enforcement officers and first responders.
Northey, who works from the Clarion office of the Tri-County agency, said that the public’s perception of drug overdose victims is often wrong.
“Most people think that overdoses only affect the users, but some of the opioids these days are so powerful that they can kill bystanders or those trying to help them,” Northey said.
One of the synthetic opioids now appearing in the region is fentanyl, a drug hundreds of times more potent than heroin. In fact, heroin is often cut with fentanyl to enhance its effects, resulting in unintentional overdoses.
Family members, EMTs and firefighters are at risk when they respond to a drug overdose involving fentanyl. Even churches and public schools are eligible to keep more than single doses on their premises after meeting several program guidelines. Overdoses can happen anywhere, sometimes up to three hours after the opioids are ingested or absorbed.
“Fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin,” Stom said. “Touching it with your bare hand means that it ends up in your bloodstream and can kill you. If you have to touch it, make sure you are wearing six-millimeter thick nitrile gloves because fentanyl can be absorbed through vinyl ones.”
Stom said, “As of this evening, there are only two school districts in Clarion County that keep Narcan on hand, Allegheny-Clarion Valley and North Clarion. The others often cite liability issues as a reason for not having it in their medical supplies officially.”
With passage of Pennsylvania’s Act 139 in 2015, administration of Narcan falls under legal guidelines similar to the Good Samaritan Act.
“As long as you are acting in good faith to help save someone’s life, you are not in legal jeopardy,” Stom said.
Northey and Stom also said that Narcan itself will not cause a drug reaction even if given to someone not actually overdosing. When it comes to fentanyl in particular, they noted, erring on the side of safety is a very good thing.
Northey said many people who have become opioid abusers never set out to become drug addicts. One in four Pennsylvania families is affected by the drug epidemic.
“People who have received opioids as pain medication for a medical problem can become addicted,” she said. “Once their prescriptions run out, they need to feed their habit and find that more-dangerous street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl are a fraction of the cost of legal pharmaceuticals.
“Letting people die ‘because they asked for it’ when they started using drugs is something I hear all the time,” Stom said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Northey said senior citizens can overdose accidentally if they become confused and take more opioid-based painkillers, such as Vicodin, than prescribed. They do not fit the common image of overdose victims.
Narcan only counteracts the effects of opioids and can be administered by anyone of any age. Administered as a nasal spray, it does not require advanced medical training or the use of injections.
While the life-saving drug is available at pharmacies, its expense deters many people from purchasing it as part of their home medical supplies. Anyone completing the two-hour Narcan training session receives one free dose that can be kept with home medical supplies.
When Narcan reaches its expiration date, people who have completed the certified training can turn in the old drug kit and receive a new one. The drug kit should be stored in a dark location at room temperature.
Northey also said that drug take-back programs in general are available in many locations, particularly at police stations in Knox, New Bethlehem and Clarion boroughs.
“Keeping opioids out of the hands of abusers is one of the most important steps in curtailing this increasing problem,” she said. Removing drugs from a house when moving or having someone stay at a bereaved family’s home during a funeral are other steps that can be taken.
Northey conducts Narcan training sessions throughout the year in different towns and facilities. Upcoming events are announced in local newspapers and social media. Clarion County Drug Free’s Facebook page provides information on drug prevention and Narcan training.