With opioid overdose deaths on the rise amid the pandemic, there’s never been a better time to learn how to save a life.
In May 2020 — a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than
The majority of those deaths were linked to synthetic opioids, namely fentanyl, a major player in the ongoing opioid crisis.
To be clear, overdose deaths were already on the rise before the start of the pandemic, but
Increased naloxone (Narcan) access and training is a key tool for preventing overdose deaths.
Naloxone is a fast-acting opioid antagonist. This means it can reverse and block the effects of an opioid overdose. It comes in the form of an injection or a nasal spray, both of which are easy to use after a quick training.
Like many things during the pandemic, naloxone training and distribution programs have been forced to go online or dramatically reduce their outreach efforts.
Finding naloxone training might be a bit harder these days, but it’s more important than ever.
Here’s what you need to know about naloxone training during a pandemic, including how to find training and other ways to get involved.
If you’re considering naloxone training, you might wonder how practical it is. Will you ever actually use what you learn? Will it really make a difference?
Traditionally, naloxone is administered in hospitals, shelters, and community organizations. But opioid overdoses can happen anywhere: parks, local businesses, public bathrooms, at a party.
“Members of the community hold membership in other spaces. The more people we train, the more naloxone there is, and people carry their kits with them as they move about spaces,” says Michael McNeil, the naloxone program administrator at Columbia Health.
Being able to administer naloxone really can be the difference between life and death, notes Tiffany Lu, addiction medicine specialist and assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
“It means that a loved one, neighbor, a co-worker can learn about overdose prevention and administer naloxone even in the absence of emergency medical services (EMS), because waiting for EMS to arrive can often delay a person’s access to a lifesaving medication,” she explains.
One of the biggest challenges around distributing naloxone during the pandemic comes down to training.
“Historically, these training sessions have been in person where we can show people what a nasal spray of naloxone looks like and have a demo version,” McNeil says. The personal touch isn’t quite there on Zoom.
While most naloxone training has been transformed into the digital space, there are clinics that haven’t adopted online training, creating a gap in naloxone education.
In addition, the pandemic has heavily limited outreach of naloxone distribution. Larger-scale events that routinely offered opioid overdose prevention services have been halted.
“I just finished up a meeting with our community health workers who’ve had to turn to social media campaigns, email outreach efforts to spread awareness that free naloxone training and kits are available,” Lu tells Healthline.
Naloxone training and requirements vary by state. Lu and McNeil recommend first looking up your state’s public health department and checking for any training or distribution opportunities.
For example, the New York State Department of Health offers a calendar of overdose prevention and response training as well as community naloxone training.
Another great resource is Next Distro, an online and mail-based platform. You can learn about resources by state and get naloxone shipped to you anywhere in the United States.
Naloxone distribution is just one element of harm reduction. Harm reduction refers to a set of strategies geared toward reducing the negative effects of drug use.
If you’re having a hard time finding training or supplies, there are still plenty of other ways to get involved in harm reduction in your community.
There are countless organizations dedicated to different aspects of harm reduction, including needle exchanges and testing drugs for contaminants.
Here are some good starting points for learning more and finding ways to get involved:
- National Harm Reduction Coalition
- Drug Policy Alliance
- North American Syringe Exchange Network
Use destigmatizing language
“I think harm reduction is starting with how we talk about people who use drugs,” Lu says.
The heavily stigmatized words “junkie” and “tweaker” are good examples of this. When people use stigmatizing words with negative connotations, it sends a signal to others that the person being talked about is less deserving of care or respect.
These terms, along with “addict” or “user,” are also harmful because they equate the person’s identity with their drug use, stripping them of other aspects of their identity.
You can counter this effect by using person-first language that focuses on what someone experiences, not who they are as a person.
By saying “person who uses drugs” instead, you’re acknowledging that they are a person first and foremost.
It might seem like a small action, but it can have a big impact on how others view and treat people who use drugs.
“It’s really making sure that we shape the environment so that we support people to make progress in their treatment and not abandon people who use drugs just because on any given day they’re not able to reach what we think is the best goal for them,” Lu adds.
Talk to friends and family
A lot of people aren’t aware of harm reduction, so simply having open conversations with friends and family can have a big impact.
Some people also have a misconception that harm reduction involves condoning drug use, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Harm reduction is really acknowledging that drug use has always been part of our society,” Lu says.
Rather than promoting drug use, harm reduction is focused on reducing the potential harms associated with drug use and saving lives.
If you’ve ever thought about learning how to administer naloxone (Narcan), now is a great time to do it. In as little as 15 minutes, you can learn everything you need to save a life.
As Robert Dunne, professor at Wayne State University and medical director for the city of Detroit says, “We really are responsible for each other… every person is a first responder.”
Kayla Hui (she/her) is a freelance journalist covering health, policy, and climate change. Her work appears in the Pulitzer Center, Well+Good, Verywell Health, People Magazine, Anti-Racism Daily, and Toward Freedom. To see Kayla’s work, you can follow her on Twitter.