“There is absolutely a risk that is lessened by having Narcan,” one student told Lookout at a drive-thru Narcan distribution event put on by substance-use safety coalition SafeRx as the risk of fentanyl and other opioids continues to stalk Santa Cruz County. “You know, a lot of students in general use drugs and I think having that resource is definitely necessary. I think it’s inevitable that someone my age is going to at least encounter it, so knowing what to do is really important.”
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Members of Santa Cruz County’s Health Improvement Partnership (HIP), SafeRx Santa Cruz County and a mix of high school and college student volunteers wore neon green vests as they directed queues of cars through a Cabrillo College parking lot during Saturday’s Narcan distribution event.
The cars were filled with a mix of county residents ranging from middle school age to middle-aged looking for opioid-overdose prevention resources and information. The approximately 550 Narcan units distributed throughout the day came with flyers and informational pamphlets that give directions on how to administer the medicine and steps people can take to promote drug safety. But the biggest draw was two free doses of Narcan — a brand of naloxone, a potentially life-saving medication in the event of an opioid overdose. Administered via nasal spray when one notices signs of an overdose — constricted pupils, loss of consciousness, discolored skin, weak breathing and choking sounds — the drug can restore normal breathing in 2 to 3 minutes.
Narcan is available through a number of services in the county, like Santa Cruz Community Health centers, the Harm Reduction Coalition, Syringe Service Program, and at UC Santa Cruz’s student health center for students. Local high school nurses have the medication for emergency administration, but they cannot distribute it as a preventative measure to the student body. Otherwise, Narcan is available only by prescription, which can be pricey — up to $140 for a pack of two doses. These accessibility barriers in the midst of the raging opioid crisis inspired local health care professionals to get more naloxone into the community by providing it to doctors and hosting mass distribution events, where they also inform attendees about where around the county they can get the medicine.
Though most of those working to combat the crisis consider naloxone to be crucial in the battle, it remains controversial in some circles. That concern is often based on the idea that increased access to the overdose-reversing tool gives users a sense of security, fostering riskier drug use.
Additionally, those who might have a loved one struggling with addiction — or who struggle themselves — could feel shame talking about it or about preparing for a possible overdose. But SafeRx lead physician Jen Hastings said that breaking down that stigma is a major part of the mission.
“I hope that we’re making an impact in terms of decreasing shame or fear about losing the respect of their friends and colleagues to step up and talk about it,” said Hastings, adding that seeing more communication between parents and kids is encouraging. “Going to a car with a parent and their maybe 12-year-old kid just makes my heart leap. I’m so excited to see Narcan getting into the hands of kids and families.”
Increased media coverage of the crisis has more people seeking out Narcan, regardless of their relationship with substances, said HIP Senior Program Coordinator Ali Hayes.
“We’ve seen an increase in moms wanting Narcan, folks wanting access to Narcan because they’re recreational drug users and worried about fentanyl,” she said. “We’re seeing folks have a deeper understanding of the opioid crisis’ severity.”
Hayes added that she believes it’s important to promote the resources and services available to those who might be struggling with drug abuse, so that they can seek help before they wind up in the midst of a medical emergency.
“These are for people no matter where they are on the spectrum of drug use,” she said. “A directory of where you can get free Narcan, medication assistance treatment, and ways to help providers do right by people who might be dealing with opioid addiction.”
Hayes said she had been getting emails all week from county residents inquiring about the event, and asking how to access the medicine beyond the drive-thru event. While she said she was happy with the substantial community interest, she wishes SafeRx had the funding bandwidth to hold more distribution events.
“We’re a community-based organization. We pulled this off, but we need more funding to continue to sustain these pop-ups,” she said, adding that funding from the California Department of Public Health and donations from the County Office of Education and the Santa Cruz Surgery Center helped make Saturday’s event possible. “It takes a lot to print out all the materials, order the Narcan and train the volunteers.”
Like the attendees who drove through the Cabrillo lot Saturday afternoon, the volunteers came from a variety of backgrounds, but many of them were students. SafeRx personnel say youth voices are vital to tackling the crisis.
“We need to do more in terms of connecting with the youth in our community to find out what our next steps should be,” said Hastings.
Hayes added that getting more Narcan into schools is “the next big hill.”
“There are very clear policies about medications being distributed. Like, even kids with severe allergies are supposed to have medicine in the office and have it dispensed by a school nurse,” she said, adding that the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval to sell Narcan over the counter might help to increase schools’ inventory. “I still think there could be challenges, but I really hope that schools, their insurance and their legal experts work together to figure out how to distribute Narcan on campus.”
Harry O’Connor is a junior at Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville. He said he knows the school nurse has Narcan, but that he has not seen or heard of it being administered.
“Still, there is absolutely a risk that is lessened by having Narcan. You know, a lot of students in general use drugs and I think having that resource is definitely necessary,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable that someone my age is going to at least encounter it, so knowing what to do is really important.”
Diego Soriano, former Soquel High School student and current Cabrillo College student, says that for some, it can be tricky to stay away from drug use and peer pressure. An intern in the county’s behavioral health division, Soriano is currently working with sixth- and seventh-graders to educate them on limiting substance abuse.
“I know it’s definitely out there, and people my age are struggling,” he said. “More Narcan is good for everyone, but the prevention aspect is really important, too.”