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Public libraries are stepping up to save lives amid the opioid epidemic

The Chicago Department of Public Health and the Chicago Public Library will make Narcan, an overdose reversal medication, available at 14 branches in areas devastated by drug overdoses.

Workers with the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, set up a table near Roosevelt Road and South Albany Avenue on the West Side to provide people with Narcan Nasal Spray, 0.4mg/ml of Naloxone and syringes to treat drug overdoses,
Workers with the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force provide people with Narcan Nasal Spray, Naloxone and syringes to treat drug overdoses. Libraries in some communities will soon provide Narcan spray also.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As the opioid epidemic continues to ravage too many Chicago neighborhoods, two city agencies are taking a small but significant step that, we hope, will help save lives.

Officials from the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Chicago Public Library last week announced a new program to make the overdose reversal medication Narcan available at 14 library branches located in areas that have been devastated by drug overdoses.

Starting later this month, library patrons will be able to obtain the nasal spray form of naloxone from wall-mounted boxes, no questions asked. Library staff have been trained on Narcan administration and distribution, and there’s no limit on the number of overdose reversal medication kits patrons can take.

Public health officials are to be lauded for taking this step to bring down the alarming numbers that have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic began and show little chance of slowing. In 2020, 1,303 people died of an opioid-related overdose in Chicago, an increase of 52% over 2019 and the highest number ever recorded in the city’s history. Of those deaths, 86% involved fentanyl, an extremely potent opioid that increases the risk of overdose.

“We’re trying to reach as many people as possible,” Dr. Wilnise Jasmin, medical director of behavioral health at the Chicago Department of Public Health, told us. “You can also have an impact on someone’s life. Help us help the whole city.”

Other cities, including Denver and St. Louis, have adopted the same practice. Emergent BioSolutions, the makers of Narcan, have been offering free doses to libraries since 2018, in response to the problems libraries across the country have experienced with drug use and overdoses occurring on their premises. But as of June 2020, only about 2% of the nation’s libraries had taken advantage of the offer.

Saving lives, with minimal training

For those wondering about the safety of this step — having the nasal spray available to anyone to administer — addictions experts and public health officials say it’s safe. Administering the nasal spray is something anyone can do, with just a little training. Narcan does not require medical training to administer, and there are no harmful effects if it’s given to someone not experiencing an overdose.

Luther Syas, director of community outreach for the West Side Heroin Task Force, knows Narcan saves lives. Twice a week, he and his team set up a table on street corners across the West Side to distribute overdose reversal medication, and he’s seen fellow outreach workers successfully administer naloxone. On Tuesday, Jan. 11, they will be at Roosevelt Road and Keeler Avenue starting at 10 a.m.

“There’s always some nervousness in the beginning. ... there’s a fear,” Syas said, noting certain steps should be taken before the drug is given to an unconscious person. But someone can easily and quickly learn how to administer Narcan.

It makes sense for libraries to get involved, as they’re trusted community anchors that provide a safe space even in rougher neighborhoods that have been hit hard by the opioid crisis.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, co-founder of the West Side Heroin Task Force, said everyone should have Narcan with them, at home and while they’re out and about. “It’s like a smoke detector; every house needs one.”

Ford believes everyone should be trained before using the nasal spray, or injecting naloxone into someone’s arm or leg. “Once it’s administered, the person will come to life, and sometimes they’re violent,” he told us. Individuals should also be prepared to call 911.

The opioid epidemic affects every community, and there are plans to expand the Narcan program to other library branches.

It’s a way all of us, not just first responders and health care workers, can take a step to fight the scourge of drug abuse and addiction.

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