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Officials: Free Narcan kits moving slowly but still likely saving lives

Given the increasing number of opioid-related deaths reported in the past months, an official said she was surprised more kits haven’t been distributed

By Nick Sambides Jr.
Bangor Daily News

BANGOR, Maine — Four local medical centers offering free prescription Narcan for people at risk of opioid overdose are seeing that the lifesaving kits aren’t moving as fast as anticipated.

But those that have been distributed are probably helping to save lives, officials said.

Eastern Maine Medical Center, St. Joseph and Acadia hospitals, and Penobscot Community Health Care have distributed fewer than three dozen of the 500 lifesaving kits as of Feb. 17, according to Patty Hamilton, the director of Bangor Public Health and Community Services.

Hamilton and members of the Community Health Leadership Board who helped raise the $17,000 in donations to fund the kits said they expected the supply would last three weeks. They began distributing the kits Feb. 1.

Given the high and increasing number of opioid-related deaths reported during the past several months, Hamilton said she was surprised more kits haven’t been distributed.

“Maybe we just haven’t done enough to get the word out,” Hamilton said Friday. “I think that we probably need to be able to give it out in multiple locations. It needs to be more widely available.”

The number of distributed kits is varied because St. Joseph Hospital reported to Hamilton that staffers had issued 10 to 20 kits. Acadia distributed one, Penobscot Community Health Care five and Eastern Maine distributed none, according to a list Hamilton released Thursday.

Police officers and firefighters reported handling 19 suspected overdose cases between Feb. 1 and Feb. 24. In one of the eight cases the fire department’s first responders were called to, a witness already has administered Narcan, but it is not clear how that person got the dosage, Assistant Fire Chief Dennis Nadeau wrote in an email to Hamilton. In the other seven cases, Nadeau said that first responders administered Narcan. All eight cases had positive outcomes, and no deaths resulted.

In comparison, the fire department handled nine incidents from Jan. 1 to Jan. 31 where overdose was suspected, but in none of those cases was Narcan “delivered by bystanders prior to our arrival,” Nadeau wrote.

“I am not sure how many kits you have in circulation, but it may be too early for us to see a clear picture of the effect,” Nadeau added. “Unfortunately, there may be or in fact is a populace who have given Narcan to OD patients, and if the administration has a positive result, it will not involve us for follow-up or transport. So with that said, there may actually be and probably is a larger positive result from the program than we can document.”

Police, meanwhile, handled 11 possible overdose cases from Feb. 1 to 6 a.m. Feb. 24, Chief Mark Hathaway wrote.

“We would not know if the private/citizen use of Narcan has saved a life or several — PD and FD would not be called (in most instances). We are seeing an increase in the attempted use of Narcan prior to our arrival — which I believe supports the need of this program,” Hathaway wrote in an email to Hamilton.

He did not provide detailed information about the calls.

Several medical care providers have told firefighters that they are giving Narcan to patients and others who have high-risk family members under their care, Nadeau wrote.

The medical centers’ primary care offices and the hospitals’ emergency departments are prescribing the nasal spray. The kits feature dosages via nasal spray, but the drug also can be injected.

The Narcan goes to people at risk who cannot afford to pay for it.

Driven by a quick rise of fentanyl-related deaths, 378 Mainer’s died from drug overdoses in 2016, according to the Maine attorney general’s office. Of those, 313 fatal overdoses were attributed to opioids, and nearly half of all fatal overdoses were attributed to fentanyl, an opioid often used to dilute heroin even though it is up to 100 times more potent than morphine.

One Narcan dosage costs about $75, and many potential overdose victims need two, Hamilton has said.

Narcan works by temporarily blocking the brain receptors that respond to opioids such as heroin, thereby allowing someone who has overdosed to begin breathing again. The drug is non-addictive and not harmful if given to someone who has not overdosed.

Community health board members will meet at the Eastern Area Agency on Aging at 7:30 a.m. Monday and likely discuss informally the program’s impact. The board meets monthly. In-depth analysis will likely occur at a future meeting, Hamilton said.

“We will keep evaluating it as time goes on. We hope to keep raising money too because we know that that’s a good approach to take right now,” Hamilton said.

Copyright 2017 the Bangor Daily News