By Jordyn Grzelewski
Of the more than 20 people in Summit County who overdosed on drugs this week, most survived.
With the help of a life-saving antidote, emergency responders were able to revive most victims in the wave of opioid overdoses that pummeled the Akron area.
That medication – naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan – has soared in availability across the state.
Since Gov. John Kasich signed into law last July a measure that allows pharmacies to dispense Narcan without requiring a prescription, nearly 1,000 pharmacies in 78 counties have begun to participate, according to records maintained by the state pharmacy board.
In the Mahoning Valley, 30 pharmacies now offer the medication without prescription.
In addition to doctors, pharmacists can hand out the medication to “an individual who there is reason to believe is experiencing or at risk of experiencing an opioid-related overdose”; to family members, friends or “other person[s] in a position to assist” those individuals; and to law-enforcement officers, according to the Ohio Administrative Code.
Although the program got off to a slow start, a state pharmacy board representative said, the number of pharmacies taking part in it has expanded drastically over the last several months.
“We’ve seen a lot of major retail chains – Kroger, CVS, Walgreens – really step it up,” said Cameron McNamee, director of policy and communications for the state pharmacy board.
“The pharmacies represent an avenue, particularly for friends and family members of someone who may be suffering from an opioid addiction, to obtain naloxone,” he said. “It’s peace of mind for a lot of friends and family members.”
Hometown Pharmacy on South Meridian Road reports that, despite being one of the earliest participants in the initiative, it’s dispensed only about 10 naloxone kits in the past year.
“I don’t know if it’s a lack of awareness that it’s available, or if it’s still the stigma,” said pharmacy manager AJ Caraballo.
Kits at that pharmacy come equipped with two doses of naloxone, syringes and instructions. The drug revives someone experiencing an overdose by restoring their ability to breathe.
The medication is widely covered by insurance plans, Caraballo said.
Naloxone also comes in the form of a nasal spray at some pharmacies.
Whatever the level of demand may be, the supply certainly has increased in this area. A month after the law went into effect, just six pharmacies in the Mahoning Valley had adapted to it.
Today, naloxone is available upon request at two pharmacies in Columbiana County; 16 in Mahoning County; and 12 in Trumbull County.
The need for the medication is there, too.
Ohioans died from unintentional drug overdoses in record numbers in 2014, the most-recent year for which Ohio Department of Health statistics are available. Of the roughly 2,500 fatal overdoses in Ohio in 2014, 54 were in Trumbull County; 48 were in Mahoning County; and 19 were in Columbiana County.
“It’s very important that we expand naloxone because most of these people are passing away prior to EMS getting there. Having naloxone is critical to keeping them breathing before emergency responders arrive,” McNamee said.
To anyone who might be hesitant to purchase naloxone, Caraballo would tell them: “[This is] a judgment-free zone.”
“Addiction is a mental-health disorder. It’s not a moral condition,” he said. “And it’s a communitywide epidemic, so we all need to rally around affected individuals in any way possible.”
For a complete list of pharmacies that dispense naloxone, visit www.pharmacy.ohio.gov/Licensing/NaloxonePharmacy.aspx.