Philly’s coronavirus response

Record-breaking Narcan shipments to prevent PA coronavirus overdose spike

The city has started weekly trainings so people living with users are ready to help.

Deavin Reaves, executive director of the PA Harm Reduction Coalition, in front of a shipment of Narcan

Deavin Reaves, executive director of the PA Harm Reduction Coalition, in front of a shipment of Narcan

Courtesy Devin Reaves

To help keep people from overdosing during the coronavirus pandemic, outreach workers are flooding Pennsylvania with thousands of doses of naloxone.

In the coming weeks, the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition will distribute 6,000 doses of the opioid overdose reversal drug to county jails and syringe service programs statewide. That adds to a delivery of 5,000 doses two weeks ago.

Over the first quarter of this year, the nonprofit has already distributed twice as much of the nasal spray as the entirety of 2019.

“We definitely know that some of the places that give out naloxone are no longer open,” said executive director Devin Reaves. “We want to make sure that people have the tools they need to remain safe.”

Many regular services for people in recovery from addiction have been canceled or cut back, including in-person meetings and medication distribution. The standard advice never to use drugs alone because of potential OD is at odds with mandates to socially distance from anyone but those in your own household.

That’s where PAHRC’s new mail-based Narcan program comes in. Anyone in Pa. can sign up online, and have the medication delivered directly to their homes.

The Philadelphia Health Department is also working to address this situation. Officials started offering virtual Narcan trainings every week, in order to teach people who might now be living with loved ones who use.

“We are worried that the pandemic could worsen the opioid epidemic,” said health department spokesperson James Garrow. “If people who use drugs are scared of being around other people, or are in some type of isolation, the likelihood of a fatal overdose will get worse, as no one would be around to administer naloxone.”

Not all users are socially isolating, however. In the city’s Kensington neighborhood, the drug trade appears to be booming — and people continue to use on the street.

Local harm reduction center Prevention Point is addressing that issue by including rubber gloves and plastic shields with the naloxone kits they’re handing out. Wearing gloves to administer the spray and using shields for rescue breaths limits potential coronavirus spread.

Prevention Point has cut back services for safety reasons, but is giving out more Narcan than usual. During the first week of Philly’s stay-at-home order, 631 doses were handed out, more than triple the usual number. Since then, distribution has leveled off to about 200 weekly, according to community engagement director Clayton Ruley.

“The period of time that folks will be with us, where we can monitor them and check and see what’s going on, now that’s not happening right now,” Ruley said. “So we definitely want to get the same, if not more, naloxone out to folks.”

In the PAHRC statewide distribution program, some of the 6,000 naloxone kits have hygienic materials and some don’t, director Reaves said.

So far, 18 syringe service programs and three county prisons — George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delco, Montgomery County Correctional Facility and Chester County Prison — have signed up for PAHRC’s new initiative. The plan for the prisons is to provide a dose of naloxone to people who were incarcerated as they’re being released.

“We know that when people go back to their homes and communities after being in correctional facilities, they have a higher risk of overdose death,” said Renee Cassidy, public health physician at the Chester County Health Department, in a statement.

Reaves hopes more prisons will follow suit.

“With all this focus on COVID-19, the overdose epidemic didn’t go away,” Reaves said. “If anything it’s going to get worse. Social isolation isn’t good for people who use drugs or people in recovery.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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