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Cleveland Officials Distribute Narcan to Stem Record Overdoses

A photo of naloxone kits being handed out
Lisa Ryan
Ashley Rosser of Thrive hands a free naloxone kit to Tony Phillips. The kit also includes fentanyl test strips, food, water, and other resources so people can provide help to someone having an overdose.

Doug Ullmann has seen firsthand that naloxone can save lives. He said a person overdosed at the addiction treatment house where he lived, and another person administered naloxone to save his life.  

“I’d never dealt with it before in my life,” he said.

He said naloxone--also called by its brand name Narcan--was kept at the house for situations like that one. Ullmann was one of the people who received a free naloxone kit that was being distributed by the Cleveland agency Thrive at the West Side Catholic Center on Tuesday. 

The month of May has historically been a marker. It is an indicator for the area and foreshadows if it will be a bad year for overdoses in Cuyahoga County, according to the Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County. So this May, they are hoping to prevent deaths by distributing free naloxone kits.

Cleveland-area health officials are trying to stop 2021 from being a record-setting year for opioid overdose deaths through education and tools to reverse overdoses and allow people to use drugs in a safer way.

Health officials are predicting that without these interventions, Cuyahoga County is on pace to have a higher number of overdose deaths in 2021 than were recorded in 2017, which was the worst year for overdose deaths in Ohio.

At least 139 people have died this year in Cuyahoga County due to heroin, fentanyl, or a combination of drugs, according to the county medical examiner’s office. During this same period of time in 2017, there were 112 overdose deaths recorded.

That’s why state agencies are distributing more than 60,000 doses of naloxone to 23 counties in Ohio that have the worst rates of overdoses. Those naloxone kits are being distributed in the zip code areas where there is a history of overdose deaths.

One of those zip codes is 44102, on Cleveland’s west side.

Ashley Rosser, who works for the recovery services agency Thrive, handed out the kits to anyone who stopped by her booth. She said they used to wait for people to come to them for naloxone or other resources, but now that’s shifting to offer those tools to anyone.

“Changing the language has helped people to see that they do know someone who might be using, or they might be living with someone who’s using,” she said. “And that’s the thing about it. We don’t always know if we’re living with someone who’s using drugs.”

Last year many people lost their jobs and recovery resources were more limited, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were fewer in-person meetings and many addiction service resources shut down, Rosser said.

“It just kind of created its own little storm, which made it worse for people,” she said.

Michael Hudson was at the West Side Catholic Center on Tuesday, and stopped by the Thrive booth. He didn’t know of anyone using drugs, but he took the naloxone because he wanted to save a life if he saw someone overdosing.

“I think it’s fantastic that they’re passing out stuff to help people in the community that might have an addiction,” he said.

Thrive also distributed fentanyl test strips in the free kit.

Beth Zietlow-DeJesus, director of external affairs at the ADAMHS Board, said many people buy drugs without realizing it may contain fentanyl, which is a much stronger opioid that can lead to overdoses.

“So the ability to test that might allow them not to use that drug, or to use it in a way that is less likely to cause a fatal overdose,” she said.

The ADAMHS Board is also distributing 25 emergency naloxone boxes to buildings where overdoses are more likely to occur and staff is trained to use naloxone.

“There’s a couple of shelters on there, there is a couple of substance use treatment centers on there, and a couple of public buildings," she said.

The boxes will be available in public areas to use if someone is having an overdose, and Zietlow-DeJesus said these will be the first of their kind in Cuyahoga County, although other Northeast Ohio counties and organizations have already started using them.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.

Lisa Ryan is a health reporter at Ideastream Public Media.