In America, one person dies of a drug overdose every 11 minutes.
The issue is a familiar one, with 23 people dying of an opioid-involved overdose in Rice County between 2000 and 2017, according to the state Department of Health. In 2017, there were 11 non-fatal overdoses from opioids in Rice County.
Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death, according to Gregory Lewis, educator with the Steve Rummler HOPE Network.
It’s an epidemic that’s led to widespread concern — and a widespread search for solutions. The HOPE Network, a Minnesota-based nonprofit, is among those seeking to end the epidemic through advocacy, education and training the public to use overdose-reversing medications like naloxone.
Lewis brought this training to Northfield Wednesday at the library, sharing ways community members can join the fight against opioids. The nonprofit was established by the family of Steve Rummler, who died of an overdose in 2011 after a long-term struggle to manage chronic pain turned into an opioid addiction. A key component of the nonprofit’s work is Steve’s Law, a 2014 Minnesota law passed that provides limited immunity to people who call 911 when witnessing an overdose and which allows more people to carry naloxone.
“First responders are essential — you should always call the police. However, it’s usually the community member who ends up saving someone’s life,” Lewis said.
Naloxone (also known by the brand name Narcan) is available without a prescription in Northfield at the Northfield Pharmacy, Cub Pharmacy, in Faribault at Allina Health District One Pharmacy and Hy-Vee Pharmacy, and at Sterling Pharmacy in both cities. The cost is $35 without insurance; with health insurance, it’s free. Doctors will also write prescriptions upon request for patients to use on a third party.
The medication generally comes as a liquid to be injected into the thigh, shoulder or buttocks, and can be administered by non-professionals with minimal training. First responders also use a nasal spray version. When combined with rescue breathing, naloxone reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, allowing the recipient to regain breathing and consciousness.
Since an overdose is essentially “someone turning off a switch in the brain,” said Lewis, it’s impossible to self-administer naloxone. Negative side effects are incredibly rare, he added, meaning that it’s safe to administer on others even when in doubt.
“If you come across someone who is overdosed, but you’re not really sure what on, give them naloxone,” Lewis said. “If you injected me with naloxone right now, I would just have a needle sticking into my thigh. If I was overdosing, it would save a life.”
In November, Northfield first responders saved the lives of two men using Narcan. In 2018, three people overdosed on carfentanil (an opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin), two more overdosed on fentanyl-laced heroin. All five survived, but another Northfield woman died in July from an overdose of fentanyl-laced heroin.
Since May 2018, county first responders have administered Narcan a total of eight times, according to the Rice County Sheriff’s Department. That figure doesn’t include its use in county hospitals or by city first responders.
Among those working toward local solutions is the Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition, which was formed in 2018 as a combination of the the county’s former organizations, Chemical Health Coalition and Mental Health Collective.
In addition to promoting naloxone’s availability, Coalition coordinator Katie Reed also noted the “Take it to the Box” program. The program encourages safe disposal of medications — including opioids — to prevent abuse and addiction. Drop-off boxes are available at the Faribault and Northfield police departments and Rice County Sheriff’s Office.
“This is really crucial in combating the opioid crisis,” Reed said. “Sometimes, you don’t know if a family member is taking pills slowly out of that bottle.”
It’s one step toward preventing the cycle of addiction that leads to overdoses. And although naloxone can revive someone from an overdose, Lewis cautioned against the perception that naloxone only value it to allow a person to continue abusing opioids or other drugs.
“The only thing naloxone and Narcan enable is someone to continue to breathe,” she said. “You cannot have someone in recovery if they are dead.”