Narcan, an antidote containing naloxone that revives people who have overdosed on opioids such as heroin or prescription painkillers
Narcan is an antidote that revives people who have overdosed on opioids such as heroin or prescription painkillers.

Through the first five months of 2016, Louisville Emergency Medical Services personnel have administered the life-saving antidote Narcan to 832 patients suspected of overdosing on heroin or prescription painkillers — nearly triple the number from this time period last year, and approaching the total for all of 2015.

This spike in Narcan interventions by medical first responders comes at a time when Louisville’s heroin epidemic is rapidly increasing, as a crackdown on prescription painkillers has led opioid addicts to the cheaper, more available and deadlier narcotic.

This spring, Louisville’s Department of Public Health and Wellness announced that overdose deaths appearing to be related to heroin had nearly tripled the total from a year earlier, citing the increased presence of other drugs such as fentanyl mixed in with heroin on the street that greatly increases the chance of an overdose. Heroin-related overdose deaths in Jefferson County increased from 105 to 124 in 2015, which is far more than any other county in Kentucky.

Narcan is a nasal spray containing naloxone, a drug that revives a person who has overdosed on an opioid by sending the individual into withdrawal.

Figures provided by EMS in response to an open records request show that their medical personnel administered Narcan to 908 patients suspected of overdosing in 2015. That figure has already nearly been equaled through the first five months of 2016, as EMS personnel administered Narcan to 832 of these patients through May 26, which is nearly three times the 288 patients receiving Narcan through the end of May in 2015. Patients receiving Narcan in March of 2016 alone nearly exceeded this figure through last May.

Data from Louisville Emergency Management Services
Data from Louisville Emergency Medical Services

EMS spokeswoman Jody Whitaker tells IL that their personnel have possessed Narcan for year, appearing to rule out an increased availability of the antidote to account for a spike in its use. While the health department has increasingly given out Narcan kits to opioid addicts and their loved ones since last year, these figures only account for the administering of the overdose antidote by EMS personnel.

The Louisville Department of Health and Public Wellness tells IL the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition has distributed 1,400 naloxone kits across the state in the last 12 months — with most of these distributed in Louisville — and conducted trainings on administering the antidotes to thousands more. Through the first quarter of 2016 in Louisville, 457 naloxone nasal sprays or injectors were distributed at the health department’s syringe exchange and at their many trainings across the city.

Dr. Joann Schulte, director of Louisville’s health department, tells IL that the spike in Narcan use by EMS personnel is partly due to the increased mixture of heroin with other drugs such as fentanyl and gabapentin, but also a sign that “the opioid epidemic in our area may not have peaked. We continue to see new clients in our syringe exchange program.”

“Heroin is dangerous… Every time someone injects heroin they run the risk of overdosing and dying,” says Schulte. “Agencies like the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition have trained and administered hundreds of naloxone kits to private citizens. We need to continue to train family members of those who use drugs as well as the general public to administer naloxone. Having more people in our city trained to administer naloxone will literally make the difference between life and death.”

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]