Photo caption: Along with naloxone, volunteers with Save a Life Day will distribute materials like this card outlining what to do in the event of a drug overdose. (Lori Kersey | West Virginia Watch)
Save a Life Day addresses stigma, access to opioid overdose reversal drug
BY: LORI KERSEY – SEPTEMBER 12, 2023 6:00 AM
An annual naloxone distribution event that started with two West Virginia counties in 2020 will expand this year to 180 counties across all 13 Appalachian states. Save a Life Day will take place on Thursday, Sept. 14.
Coordinator Iris Sidikman said naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, faces less stigma today than it did before. It’s also more accessible. Narcan, a brand name for the drug, will soon be sold over the counter.
But mass distribution still has an important role, Sidikman said.
“The people who are truly the first responders in most overdose situations are people who use drugs, are people who are on the streets, or there in that moment,” Sidikman said. “And those are people who may not be able to afford to purchase Narcan, even if it is over the counter. They are the people who need the supply of free naloxone that we’re supplying the most. So the work is going to continue.”
The first Save A Life Day was DHHR’s Office of Drug Control Policy, in partnership with SOAR WV, a Charleston-based overdose prevention organization. The state this year provided $600,000 worth of naloxone in West Virginia, according to a news release. The University of Charleston Pharmacy School also provides naloxone for the event.
“We are thankful for SOAR WV’s commitment to helping us reduce fatal overdoses across the state through naloxone training and distribution, and for the opportunity to provide technical assistance to organizers in other states,” Rachel Thaxton, interim director for DHHR’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said in the release.
According to provisional data from the Office of Drug Control Policy, West Virginia’s fatal overdose numbers increased during the pandemic and have not lowered to pre-pandemic levels. Nearly 900 people died of overdoses in 2019. That number rose to 1,343 in 2020 and 1,537 for 2021. An estimated 1,388 West Virginians died of drug overdose in 2022.
While naloxone distribution is the “backbone” of Save a Life Day, organizations can choose what other services they’ll include, Sidikman said.
“We really try to give the local county organizers a lot of leeway and freedom and flexibility to choose what they want to do because the laws are different everywhere,” Sidikman said. “The culture is different everywhere. And so people have really taken it and run with it. “
Joe Solomon, a founder of SOAR and Save a Life Day, said a key part of the event is making the invisible act of carrying naloxone more visible.
Local organizations will pass out “I carry naloxone” bumper stickers and buttons.
In Alabama, Morgan Farrington, founder and managing director of GoodWorks, a Huntsville-based harm reduction program, will be educating people about naloxone instead of distributing it.
Alabama state law allows only certain medical professionals, like doctors, pharmacists and public health nurses, to distribute naloxone.
Farrington said she’ll refer people to programs that offer free or low-cost Narcan.
“Also [I’ve have] information if people are interested in laws changing, how they might can go about doing stuff,” she said. “Who voted which way in our last elections.”
More locally, teams from Charleston Area Medical Center Addiction Services Team will distribute naloxone outside CAMC General Hospital from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Last year, CAMC distributed 140 kits, spokesman Dale Witt said.
Most of the 13 Kanawha County organizations will have mobile teams visiting local businesses and at-risk community members offering naloxone and training, Solomon said.
A team from Charleston’s Coordinated Addiction Response Effort plans to distribute naloxone in areas that have been “hot spots” for drug overdoses, like the West Side flats and Renaissance Circle on the East End.
Danni Dineen, the city’s quick-response team coordinator, is tracking the city’s overdoses and has noticed a spike around this time this year and in 2022 and 2021. During the three weeks prior to the 2022 Save a Life Day, the city had 37 overdoses, seven of which were fatal.
In the three weeks after the event, there were 19 drug overdoses. Two of them were fatal.
This year’s overdose numbers for the three weeks prior to the event are also on track for a spike, Dineen said. As of Monday the city has had 26 drug overdoses, five of them fatal, over the last three weeks, she said.
“It’s telling me that not only are we having a spike in overdoses at this time of the year, it’s also the most fatal time of the year,,” Dineen said. “So I’m not sure why the SOAR folks picked at this specific time for Save a Life Day, but it couldn’t be any better time of the year based on the data that we are tracking.”
While it’s difficult to describe a “typical” amount of drug overdoses, the city averages between 20 and 30 overdoses a month, CARE director Taryn Wherry said.
Cabin Creek Health Systems will have staff members at the now-closed Texas Roadhouse in Kanawha City, not far from its administrative building, community impact officer Jake Van Horn said.
Another Cabin Creek team will take naloxone to more sensitive groups like homeless encampments.
Van Horn said Save a Life Day holds a special meaning for the clinic, which has participated since the first year.
“It’s a good event to address stigma, as far as it kind of normalizes the idea that, unfortunately, it’s a pretty normal need,” he said. “And it’s a really easy way for us to take care of our neighbors and our family and our friends, just to have Naloxone around. So it’s a powerful statement and it puts a ton of product out, which is never bad.”
For a full list of which organizations will be participating in Save A Life Day and where, visit SOAR’s website at soarwv.org.
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