A box of overdose-reversal drug Narcan

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

Two machines that automatically dispense opioid overdose reversal medication are headed to South and West Philadelphia, according to the city’s Department of Public Health. Specific locations are still being determined, officials said.

Once the dispensers are installed, people will gain easy access to Narcan, also known as naloxone, so they can treat overdose emergencies in seconds and potentially save lives.

Last year, 1,214 people died of overdoses In Philadelphia, according to the latest health department report, a year-over-year increase of 6% and just under the city’s previous peak in 2017. There was also a marked racial disparity: overdoses among Black people jumped 29%, while white overdose deaths dropped 10%. Hispanic overdose deaths rose by 1%.

The dispensers are the result of brainstorming between Jose R. Caraballo Jr., manager of environmental services for the health department’s Division of Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction, and another specialist who didn’t want to be named for personal reasons.

They came up with the idea of machines that could swiftly give out Narcan at no cost to those who needed it immediately, or anyone who might be too shy or afraid of stigma to get the widely-available medication through pharmacies or outreach programs.

“We are hoping to place the towers in neighborhoods with less access to Narcan,” Caraballo’s colleague told Billy Penn, “and that they can be one tool to help us address racial disparities in overdose rates that we are seeing in Philly.”

Narcan has been available in some vending machines in Las Vegas since 2019, and several Wisconsin towns have similar dispensers, as do some counties in Kentucky.

Philly’s program is being called Narcan Near Me. It came about partly because Caraballo’s department is in charge of maintaining the portable restrooms in McPherson Park in Kensington, which serve many people experiencing homelessness and substance use disorders. His team placed a small cubby with Narcan kits inside the bathrooms — and people began using them.

“We started to see how great they were doing, so we had a conversation with the [health department] harm reduction team,” Caraballo explained. They got the go-ahead to push the effort further.

However, no companies in Philadelphia were able to produce a prototype for such a machine, so Caraballo and his colleague turned to the MySafe Project in Canada. MySafe already has similar machines, but they dispense a safe supply of opioids, not overdose reversal medicine. Also, they require biometric scans of a person’s hand in order to access the contents.

For the dispensers being rolled out in Philly, the barrier to access is lower.

Individuals can choose to take a five second survey about their age, race, and ZIP code before accessing the Narcan — or skip it entirely. In an emergency, people can just press a button, and the machine will immediately open a cubby.

Inside is a kit containing two doses of Narcan, gloves, face shields, instructions about how to recognize signs of an overdose and how to use Narcan, and literature about treatment options.

Narcan Near Me will begin with locations in South and West Philadelphia to get the medication to neighborhoods where it’s not already widely available now, but where overdoses are spiking. The health department is in talks with community organizations about specific sites. There were some discussions about placing them in SEPTA stations, but officials could not confirm whether that will happen.

“Planning is ongoing and all sites have not been confirmed,” said health department spokesperson James Garrow. “We hope to make dispensers available in a variety of settings so it will be as easy as possible to find naloxone in Philly

Although Kensington is the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic, Caraballo said many people don’t realize the crisis plagues the entire city. “People say, ‘I think this is great, but why do we need it here?’” he said. “This is everywhere — you just don’t see it. It’s behind closed doors. And people say, ‘Oh wow! I didn’t know that.’”

Caraballo’s team will electronically monitor the dispensers daily to see when they need to be restocked. The machines will also track how many doses people are accessing and at what times of day, which will help officials determine how to better assist those in need.

Philadelphia is leasing the two pilot machines from the Canadian company that built the prototypes for two years for a total of $75,000. The project has been in the works for about 9 months. If successful, it could expand.

Said Caraballo, “I strongly believe that these machines will help prevent fatal overdoses.”