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Friday, April 7 is World Health Day, a day to increase awareness about health issues impacting people across the globe. While the focus of World Health Day is global, we would like to highlight a national and local public health issue–fentanyl and the opioid overdose crisis–and a new local campaign working to address it in Nevada County.
First, a bit about the problem we are facing as a country and county.
Nationally, Americans are dying at unprecedented rates from opioid overdoses. The increase in recent years has been driven primarily by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which account for more than 80% of opioid overdose deaths nationwide.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50-100 times as strong as morphine, is widespread in the nation’s drug supply. Drugs ranging from counterfeit pills (Xanax, Percocet, etc.) to meth, cocaine and MDMA, among others, are frequently laced with fentanyl. Fentanyl’s potency–along with most people being unaware that they are taking a strong opioid–has proven a fatal combination for many.
Nevada County has not been immune to this national trend. Fentanyl first appeared in the county’s drug supply in March 2020 with immediate impact. In 2019, the county lost 18 people to accidental drug overdoses. Not a single death that year involved fentanyl. Of the 115 accidental overdose deaths in the county since 2019, 53 have involved fentanyl. The deaths have impacted people across demographics and across the county.
The problem is large and it’s probably not going anywhere soon, but there is hope.
Since the summer of 2020, when community members first raised concerns about the spike in overdose deaths, a small group of organizations has been working to increase knowledge and awareness about opioid overdose prevention and harm reduction strategies, including increasing access to the life-saving medication naloxone.
Naloxone (commonly referred to by its brand name Narcan) is an opioid overdose reversal medication that acts quickly to knock opioids off opioid receptors in the brain. Naloxone is easy to use, doesn’t require a prescription, is not a controlled substance, can’t get someone high and poses no harm to the recipient if the suspected overdose doesn’t involve opioids. Access to the medication is often the difference between a fatal and non-fatal overdose.
What began as a small group of organizations in the summer of 2020 has grown over the past few years to include a broad range of institutions who have stepped up to do their part by providing training to their staff and clients or signing up to offer free naloxone through the state’s Naloxone Distribution Project, which provides participating organizations with a free supply of naloxone that they can offer to their clients, customers or the broader community.
Local efforts include businesses like BriarPatch Food Co-op signing up to be an access point for free naloxone; health care institutions like Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and Tahoe Forest Hospital offering 24/7 access to free naloxone through the emergency department; and organizations like Yuba Harm Reduction Collective, Nevada County Public Health and The Speedy Foundation in Truckee, who will arrange to get community members free naloxone by text or phone.
These are just a few examples of the many groups stepping up to reverse the trend of increasing overdose deaths despite state and national trends that continue to rise.
With this goal in mind–saving lives–we are excited to announce the Know Overdose Nevada County campaign (http://www.KnowOverdoseNC.com). Know Overdose Nevada County is a local campaign to increase knowledge and awareness about overdose prevention and harm reduction strategies, including naloxone, that can help prevent overdoses and deaths.
The diversity of Know Overdose Nevada County’s supporters, which includes more than 20 local businesses, education institutions, health care providers and non-profits, demonstrates the strong support and urgent need for a community-based harm reduction approach to save lives in the midst of this crisis.
The data shows this approach is working. In 2022, the county experienced the fewest accidental overdose deaths since 2019, including the lowest number of opioid overdose deaths over the same time. There is still a lot of work to do and it will take all of us–carrying naloxone and learning how to help–to do it.
Nevada County is a special community. On this World Health Day, let us embrace the power of that community in working together to address one of the biggest local public health challenges we face today–together.
Dr. Alinea Stevens is a physician and medical director at Chapa-De Indian Health, which offers free naloxone to clients as well as medication-assisted treatment.
Bethany Wilkins is the director of Yuba Harm Reduction Collective, a local non-profit harm reduction organization founded in response to the increase in overdose deaths in Nevada County.
Shannon Decker is the executive director and co-founder of The Speedy Foundation, a non-profit organization providing overdose prevention training and resources, including free naloxone, to Truckee and the surrounding community.
FREE NALOXONE AND FENTANYL TEST STRIPS
Yuba Harm Reduction Collective: Call or text 530-362-8163
Nevada County Public Health: Call or text 530-388-6364
The Speedy Foundation: Call or text 208-471-8904