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Those on front lines of opioid addiction share stories and numbers of naloxone reversals

Posted at 9:35 PM, Nov 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-27 00:17:28-05

DENVER — The Denver City Council approved the pilot of a supervised use site for intravenous drug users on Monday. The supervised part of that includes a trained professional on-site to administer naloxone (brand name Narcan) in case of overdoses. So Denver7 dug into the numbers to see how much that “antidote drug” is already being used and what that means for the state of the opioid crisis in Denver.

“If it wasn’t for naloxone I would be dead like nine years ago,” former addict Vernon Lewis said.

After that overdose, when naloxone was used to counter the opioids and bring him back, Lewis decided to turn his life around. He now trains people how to use the antidote drug, and has administered it to others more than a hundred times as part of his job with the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver.

“If you knew how easy it was to give that person a second chance you’d slap yourself for not doing it earlier,” Lewis said.

Denver7 checked with local authorities that carry and administer either naloxone or Narcan. Since the start of 2018:

  • Denver police have used it 5 times.
  • Denver firefighters have used it 135 times.
  • Denver Health paramedics have used it 827 times.

“Over the last six or seven years we’ve given it at least 700 times per year,” said Captain Steve Hulac, of the Denver Paramedic Division at Denver Health.

Denver Health dispatches all ambulances within Denver. They see about two to three opioid overdose calls that require naloxone per day.

“That's probably only a small bit because the administration (of the drug) is only for the most extreme cases,” Hulac added.

Hulac says in many cases the patients that paramedics treat “look like they’re dead” and that the drug, administered by them through an IV, can bring a person back to a normal state within a few minutes.

He added that those patients come from all backgrounds and walks of life.

“Some people might have an idea in their head that it’s just in the alley or park, but in fact we see these patients all over: in public buildings, in the park, or in their own home,” he said.

And with opioids so widespread, that brings the so-called “antidote drug” into all kinds of places, including the library.

“We’re talking about librarians that have been trained,” manager of security at the Denver Public Library Bob Knowles said.

Every staff member at the Denver Library system has been trained to use naloxone. Every security guard carries the Narcan nasal spray.

“It’s no different than responding to a heart attack. We take preventive measures before the paramedics get there,” Knowles said.

Those security guards at the downtown location have used naloxone eight times so far in 2018. They used it 14 times from February to December last year.

“One is too many,” Knowles said. “But there’s 22 people walking around who have an opportunity because we had Narcan available to make a better decision tomorrow.”

There is the argument that having a widely available cure drug would or could enable users to keep using. But people like Vernon Lewis argue differently when counting the positives and negatives.

“You enable a person. That’s one finger of enabling. And then you have the abling. I’m abling the person to continue their life, to make another decision, to go home to their family. There’s so many abling on this hand I’m going to run out of fingers and toes and I’ll ask for yours but I still have just that one enabling,” he said.