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In Kanawha County, we are not immune to the impact and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As citizens and stewards of public health, we do everything humanly possible to prevent the spread of the virus—hand washing, social distancing, face masks, hand sanitizer, etc. Sadly, we don’t always take the same precautionary and life-saving approach in relation to substance abuse.

As COVID-19 numbers have increased, so have non-fatal and fatal overdoses across West Virginia. This is not surprising when we consider that substance use disorder is often associated with economic hardship and isolation. Many research studies have evidenced a link between job loss and substance misuse. COVID-19 certainly perpetuated a spike in unemployment. Even those who are back to work are struggling — especially those working at area restaurants and small businesses. In addition, discussion and research surrounding mental health issues emerging from not only economic hardship but isolation over the last six months is prevalent in almost every newspaper and on every news channel.

We are experiencing an epidemic within a pandemic. In May 2020, the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy reported that overdose deaths (fatal and non-fatal) in Kanawha County were double those of the previous year. Although those numbers seem to be teetering off for June and July, they are certainly not trending downward.

One way to combat these dismal numbers is to save lives by using naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdose. Once only prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists, this life-saving drug is now readily available without prescription to anyone who may want it. There are many myths and misnomers about this medication among community members.

I was struck by an article in this month’s Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment that examined community responses and implications of carrying naloxone. The article was entitled “You’ve got to care to carry this stuff.” In short, the authors’ interviewed persons who administered the life-saving overdose reversal drug to someone in their community (mostly strangers) and examined the motivations behind their actions. My take-away from the article was that in areas where there is a high belief in personal responsibility for the betterment of the community, naloxone is more freely accepted as “normal” and “the right thing to do.”

I’ve heard many of the “let them die” arguments far too often on social media threads or in newspaper vent lines. I wish I could say the inhumanity of these arguments surprise me. Sadly, we are at a turning point in our American history where we need to redefine what it means to be a member of a community — what it means to walk with others as you would like them to walk with you.

I have also heard arguments from friends and community members suggesting that since they do not know someone in active addiction, they have no use for naloxone. Consider this: you are prescribed opioids after an invasive dental procedure. You forget to store your medicine properly and your 4-year-old niece takes it and overdoses. Of course, you call 911, but having naloxone on hand to administer before the paramedics arrive could indeed save her life.

While this may sound far-fetched, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the majority of prescription-related visits to hospital emergency rooms among children are opioid related. And, nine out of 10 unintentional medication-related poisonings happen at home.

Another myth I hear in my work is that naloxone is dangerous if you administer it to someone who has not overdosed. This is simply not true. Naloxone has no adverse effects to those who have not overdosed. This makes it less dangerous than other medications lurking in your cabinets, nightstands and countertops. Naloxone does two things—reverses overdose and saves lives.

To help in the effort to spread the word about life-saving naloxone, the West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute, Inc. (WV DII) located on the first floor at 118 Capitol Street in Charleston, will be serving as one of 16 countywide distribution and training locations in Kanawha and Putnam Counties on Wednesday, September 2, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. The event is the first of its kind for West Virginia and could become a model for other counties. This countywide distribution provides the opportunity for anyone to receive training on naloxone, receive their own naloxone kit, and receive information about how to properly dispose of medications.

At the WV DII, our mission is to decrease overdose deaths in West Virginia. Naloxone is central to that mission. We believe everyone should consider carrying naloxone. You never know when you will have a chance to save someone’s life.

Susan M. Bissett is president of the West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute.