Summit County considering ways to prevent overdose deaths and other harms of substance abuse
The U.S. is currently in the throes of an opioid abuse and overdose epidemic, health officials and advocates say, and Colorado is no exception: There is a fatal overdose in the state every 9 hours and 24 minutes, and they have claimed more than 11,000 lives since 1999.
A severe shortage of inpatient treatment facilities for substance abuse problems, however, has led state and local officials to increasingly focus on reducing the harmful effects of drug use.
One of the most effective ways to do that is to increase access to naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug carried by paramedics and, increasingly, law enforcement. The drug works by temporarily blocking opioid receptors and does not produce a high.
“No one can get treatment in Colorado today. It’s impossible,” said Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center. “So we get people naloxone, because a dead drug user will never be able to get treatment.”
Raville was invited by the Summit County Public Health Department last week to give a presentation to local law enforcement, health providers, drug court staff and other stakeholders. The idea was to start a conversation in Summit County about ways to address some of the problems associated with drug addiction.
“We are like the rest of the state and nation. We are seeing more incidence of substance abuse problems, so this is something that has been a focus: to reduce harms,” said Sara Lopez, nurse manager at the Public Health Department.
Last year, there were four recorded overdose deaths in Summit, and three of them were ruled accidental.
While paramedics in Summit County carry naloxone, law enforcement officers don’t, primarily due to cost: All five companies that produce naloxone have drastically increased their prices in recent years, a grim economic indicator of the overdose epidemic.
While companies sometimes give bulk-rate discounts for police, local departments haven’t had the room in the budgets to stock up on the antidote and train officers to use it.
Last September, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman launched an initiative to supply law enforcement with the life-saving drug, sending kits to 17 counties with the highest rates of drug overdose deaths.
Summit didn’t make that list, but Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said he hopes the attorney general will soon buy the kits for more counties.
“Luckily, the way our paramedics and ambulances respond so quickly means that it’s extremely rare that we get there before they do,” FitzSimons said.
In large urban areas where ambulances and fire trucks can often get stuck in traffic, he said, there’s a greater emphasis on every single first responder being equipped with an overdose kit.
“Our officers occasionally encounter overdoses but they’re certainly not a regular occurrence,” said Silverthorne police chief John Minor. “It may be something we consider further down the road. If someone would provide it we certainly would.”
Naloxone is currently available to the public at City Market pharmacies, and Lopez said that Safeway and Walgreens will soon be making it available as well. While the drug still technically requires a prescription, the state legislature passed a bill in 2015 allowing pharmacies and other groups to distribute it to people without the direct involvement of a doctor.
The antidote isn’t a tool for ending the nationwide opioid epidemic, advocates say, but it’s a safe and effective way to avoid preventable deaths.
“Fatal overdoses happen all the time, and with that in mind and with treatment resources being fairly scarce and not immediately available, naloxone is a resource,” said Lopez.
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