In March 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an over-the-counter naloxone nasal spray that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. The FDA’s announcement allows members of the public to purchase Narcan, a popular brand of naloxone, at local pharmacies without a prescription.
Steven Cohen is the Whatcom County Emergency Medical Services training specialist who distributes and educates the public on how to use Narcan.
“If you have used nasal spray before, then you should be able to use Narcan," Cohen said. "It’s that easy.”
Cohen said not everyone who is unconscious may be experiencing an opioid overdose. Like any other medical emergency, call 911.
According to the City of Bellingham Fire Department Data Dashboard, the fire department responded to 3,089 calls regarding overdoses from Jan. 2018 to June 2023.
According to the University of Washington Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute, the rate of opioid overdoses statewide was 10.1 per 100,000 state residents in 2011, compared to an increased rate of 21.3 per 100,000 state residents in 2021.
Alison Newman is a health educator at the UW ADAI.
“We know that in Washington, the drug supply changed,” Newman said. “Fentanyl became much more widespread in about 2020, sort of increasing slowly before that, and then really dramatically took off during that time.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common symptoms of an opioid overdose include shallow breathing, pale blue skin and loss of consciousness.
“Opioid use disorder, which is what we call opioid addiction, is a treatable condition," Newman said. "Medications like buprenorphine and methadone can really help people stay alive, so it's really important for people to learn about these medications and try and get access to them.”
The out-of-pocket cost for customers without insurance for Narcan at Walgreens can cost between $100 to $150 for a two-pack of nasal spray. Customers can call their local pharmacy for availability and pricing information.
Cohen said out-of-pocket costs at pharmacies, reluctance to get involved and not knowing where to get free Narcan can all be potential barriers to getting the nasal spray to someone in need.
“Before you intervene or try to help somebody, make sure that you're safe, and if you don't feel safe, then just pick up your phone and call 911,” Cohen said.
Under RCW4.24.300, Washington state’s Good Samaritan law, a bystander can intervene in a medical emergency such as an opioid overdose and be shielded from civil liability, as long as they are operating under “good faith.” RCW 69.41.095 allows individuals to carry and administer Narcan, while RCW.69.50.315 prevents a person from being charged with possession of illegal drugs if obtaining medical assistance.
Bill Hewett, the fire chief of the Bellingham Fire Department, said it is important to take a holistic view of the opioid crisis and have community conversations about treatment options.
“How do we work on the disease itself and not just symptoms?” he said.
Dustin Michaelis, a captain and public information officer for the Bellingham Fire Department, described seeing the effects of the crisis while working on the front lines.
“It's not just one group or person," he said. "It's widespread. It's tough seeing families torn up.”
The Whatcom County EMS website provides information about free Narcan. To get free Narcan by mail, sign up for The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance or contact Steven Cohen via email, as well as visit stopoverdose.org and learnabouttreatment.org for information about overdoses.
Joshua Kornfeld (he/him) is a city reporter for The Front this quarter. He is a junior majoring in journalism who enjoys photography, live music and exploring new coffee shops.
You can reach him at email@example.com.