Since this summer, 635 people in Louisville have been rescued from a heroin overdose by naloxone, a drug now made available without a prescription due to legislation passed by the Kentucky General Assembly this year. That same legislation allowed Louisville to implement its needle exchange program administered by the city health department.

Metro Councilman David James, D-6, distributed information from Metro’s Emergency Management Agency to members of the Democratic Caucus at their meeting on Thursday, showing that naloxone — also known by its brand name Narcan — has been used to combat 635 heroin overdoses since July. The drug is now made available to first responders and the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness without a prescription, as well as to the family members of those struggling with heroin addiction — whose numbers have spiked in recent years in Louisville and throughout the state.

According to the map distributed by James, the use of such overdose drugs has occurred in all council districts except one, with the highest concentration (96) in Councilman David Tandy’s downtown District Four.

Map of heroin overdoses with Narcan intervention in Louisville since July | Source: Metro Emergency Management Agency
Map of heroin overdoses with Narcan intervention in Louisville since July | Source: Metro Emergency Management Agency

Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch, D-13, then shared a story about a woman who had attended a public meeting about the needle exchange program and learned about Narcan. Welch later ran into the woman again and discovered her grandson had overdosed on heroin but was saved because the family had obtained Nacran; the grandson now is in drug treatment.

“It makes you feel good that we’re a part of this,” said Welch. “And we’ve got to keep that needle exchange going. The needle exchange, the Narcan, the harm reduction… it’s all tied together.”

Welch then pivoted to criticize a recent story on WAVE3 by John Boel about the needle exchange program; the story showed footage of people shooting up after visiting the exchange and suggested it only gave out mass quantities of needles without receiving used ones in return. Welch said that one man Boel described as shooting up between his toes after visiting the exchange actually was treating an abscess on his foot — using gloves and gauze provided to him at the exchange — which he later sought treatment for at the hospital.

“That bad story that came out, that John Boel did, is not the true picture of what is going on,” said Welch, who also added that Dr. Sarah Moyer — the interim health department director featured in the story — was not an effective spokesperson, and that the department should do a better job of defending the work of the needle exchange.

Councilman Rick Blackwell, D-12, added that while it is fair to examine the needle exchange program in order to improve it, Boel left out important information that misled viewers, such as the fact that while the ratio of new needles given to used needles returned was initially high, it has dramatically lowered to levels rivaling the best programs in the country.

“It surprised me in that story, some of the simple things that didn’t come out,” said Blackwell. “Like (the exchange ratio) starting out at a 7 or 8 to 1 exchange, and then down to (below 2 to 1). Even some of those simple numbers didn’t come out in that story at all and left the impression that we’re getting zero needles back.”

While the needle exchange ratio was initially high once Louisville's program started, it has now fallen below 2:1
While the needle exchange ratio was initially high once Louisville’s program started, it has now fallen below 2:1 | Souce: Metro Public Health and Wellness

Also receiving scant mention in Boel’s story was one of the main purposes of the program — combatting the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C — and the story of Scott County, Ind., just 35 miles north of Louisville, which witnessed an epidemic of 181 new HIV cases this year resulting from shared needles among drug users. While Boel’s story cited an undercover producer’s video to suggest that no one using the exchange is offered drug treatment, Councilman David Yates, D-25, said the real issue is finding enough beds at treatment facilities to house them, as many addicts are told they will have to wait a month.

“We have such a huge wait list,” said Yates. “I hear it from assistant county attorneys, people saying we’ve got individuals who want to get treatment. And you have to do it while they’re willing. So (Metro Council has) a duty to step up, too. Because we’re bringing them in and if they’re saying they want to go into drug treatment, we need to make sure that’s available.”

The Public Health and Wellness department has not yet responded to Insider Louisville’s inquiries about the WAVE 3 story.

Councilman James also provided a map of the total overdoses from any drugs in Louisville since July, which reached a staggering 5,904 and reached every corner of Jefferson County.

Source: Metro Emergency Management Agency
Source: Metro Emergency Management Agency

Health department spokeswoman Kathy Harrison sent IL the following statement responding to the WAVE 3 story, saying that it missed an opportunity to educate viewers about the problem, instead promoting stereotypes and fear.

“Unfortunately, the story you are referring to missed an opportunity to educate its viewers about an important program, opting instead to run a piece that promotes stereotypes and foments fear about a tragic subject – addiction — that affects so many.

Our syringe exchange program is designed to prevent the spread of blood borne diseases throughout the entire community by people who inject drugs and share needles. Study after study has shown that syringe exchange programs do not increase drug use in the communities that implement them. Our program is bringing drug users into contact with the health system where they can get treatment for their addiction. Already since June, 85 individuals have been referred for drug treatment.

It is a “harm reduction” model focused on preventing disease, teaching participants about proper disposal of syringes and getting people affected with addiction to start taking care of themselves and get back on track to recovery.”

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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]