Washingtonians now have access to free Narcan, a drug designed to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, thanks to a pilot program aimed at cutting the number of D.C. opioid-related deaths in half by late 2020.
The overdose-reversing drug, a nasal spray that requires little to no training to administer, is available at 17 different local pharmacies. The program, which started on Aug. 31, is part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Live. Long. D.C. comprehensive initiative to tackle the city’s opioid addition epidemic.
“Basically, anyone who requests one, they can get it without a prescription,” said Tom Brew, a pharmacist at Grubbs NW Specialty Pharmacy, which provides the kits.
“There’s nothing really complicated about [the program],” Brew said in an interview. “It’s pretty much just like asking for a flu shot.”
According to a press release from D.C. Health, the program was implemented on “International Opioid Awareness Day” as part of the city’s bigger plans to combat opioid addiction and deaths.
Michael Kharfen, senior deputy director of the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB administration for D.C. Health, said in a phone interview that the program is part of a multi-level “strategy of making this lifesaving medication available within the community.”
According to Kharfen, DC Health has taken a community-based approach in order to reduce overdoses in the District. They began providing naloxone to local organizations like Bread for the City and HIPS, which provide a number of services for Washingtonians, in 2016.
Partnering with these organizations has been a way for DC Health to provide support for those who are at higher risk for overdose by supplying Narcan to local groups who already have relationships with users around the city.
“Our opioid epidemic is different than the rest of the nation,” said Kharfen. “The persons most affected in D.C. have been longer term users” who are more diverse and generally older than the average overdose victim in the country.
In a report from the DC Office of the chief medical examiner published on Aug. 21, the most at-risk population for opioid-related fatal overdoses in the District is 50-59 year old African-American men, who constituted nearly a third of all deaths in 2018.
Kharfen said that the new plan to provide Narcan at local pharmacies takes that information into mind when considering the locations where the medication will be distributed.
“We need to provide lots of different options and access points for people to get naloxone, and while the primary distribution has been through those community partners who work closely with the population, we do recognize there can be others who may have family or friends … who could benefit by having this medication on hand,” said Kharfen.
The pharmacies chosen for the pilot program are located in wards that have been hardest hit by the opioid crisis. In 2018, Ward 8 had the highest number of opioid related overdoses with 45 confirmed fatalities and now, by design, has the most pharmacies that provide Narcan.
Manjula Chitkula, head of Kalorama Pharmacy in Adams Morgan, said in a phone interview that her pharmacy is distributing its first Narcan kits today. The pharmacy provides training on how to use Narcan, Chitkula said, thereby “encouraging people” to be more prepared to respond to overdoses.
“We are distributing according to the need,” Chitkula said. “We just need their name, their date of birth, and allergy information, then we can give them [however] many kits they want.”
“This is a lifesaver,” said Chitkula.