Overdoses Spur Increased Access to Narcan in VT Prisons

By QIAN LI

Over the first weekend of the new year, at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vt., two inmates’ lives were in grave danger due to drug overdoses.

Both inmates were unresponsive to verbal and physical stimuli and one was discovered with no pulse, Mike Touchette, Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, told The Campus.

According to Touchette, the two individuals were given Narcan, an overdose-reversal drug, and other first aid, with CPR given to the inmate without a pulse. After responding to first aid/CPR, both individuals survived and were able to return to the facility within 24 hours of their departure thanks to “the lifesaving efforts of the staff.”

“In overdose situations, seconds count,” Touchette said. Touchette was part of an initiative to increase access to Narcan in Vermont Corrections by extending permission to prison guards and workers, as well as shift supervisors and nursing staff, to carry the drug. “Allowing unit officers to carry and administer Narcan immediately could save a life,” he continued. “Though our typical emergency response times at all facilities is about ten to thirty seconds, a few seconds could make the difference.”    

 Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine echoed this view and regarded the new policy as “incredibly wonderful.”

 Levine couldn’t confirm whether the incident in Swanton was an opiate overdose; however, he said that there was absolutely no risk in using Narcan “anytime you would even think it is an opiate overdose,” as it would not hurt people and could save lives.

 With the already established policy that increases access to Narcan for any citizens within the state — including first responders, private citizens, pharmacies, etc. — Vermont has become a progressive pioneer in dealing with the nation’s opioid crisis. 

 “The cornerstones for any state that wants to cope quickly and successfully with the opioid crisis is to have universal access to Narcan,” said Levine.

 The Department of Health aims to provide treatment for anyone who requests it in a timely fashion without any prerequisites. The treatment is therefore accessible, individualized and considers context-specific questions. 

 Ever since former Governor Peter Shumlin’s powerful speech on the opioid crisis five years ago, progress has been made across various areas of the issue, including prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery.

“The one thing that we stand out for the most is that we do have a treatment system that now has no waiting list and has the capacity to treat anyone who wants to be treated,” said Levine.

 According to Levine, while only one to two out of 10 people who have an opioid use disorder are in treatment nationwide, that number is somewhere between three or four in the state of Vermont. However, how to engage the rest of that state population and how to quickly and efficiently provide them with the treatment they need still remains one of the major dilemmas moving forward.

“A lot of people feel stigmatized,” continued Levine. “We have done our best trying to educate people about the changes [occurring] in brain chemistry and neurobiology, and that addiction is not a moral failing by any means.” 

Over recent years the state has made efforts to build a more supportive recovery system to ensure that people have a complete recovery not only by receiving medication, but also by obtaining housing, transportation and employment.

A good recovery does not just mean “you are on medication treatment and cease taking drugs;” it also means having “a fully productive, gratifying life” and feeling “positive about yourself” as “a contributing member of the society,” Levine said.

Regarding the work ahead, Levine believes prevention is key. 

 Thomas Hanley, Chief of Police at Middlebury Police Department, supported a similar view. Attempting to go beyond  drug use in tackling the opioid crisis, Hanley regards it more from a social perspective and tries to understand the many social causes behind.

 “Why are these people using drugs to begin with? When we answer that question, we will be able to completely solve the problem,” said Hanley.

 The opioid crisis  demands our attention when it is estimated that up to 70 percent of the individuals with substance use disorders may also have an ongoing mental illness.

 “If you figure out why someone develops a substance disorder in the first place, it’s often related to traumatic experiences earlier in life, which we call adverse childhood and adverse family experiences,” explained Levine. Among people who began using in their 20s, he explained, there is a trend of other substance use, including that of nicotine, alcohol, cannabis and more.

Although the State has made major advancements in resolving the opioid crisis, for Hanley it remains an important issue to address on a local level.

 “You can’t just have some office say ‘let the federal government treat it,’” Hanley said. “It’s a local problem, they are local people, [and] we need to be responsible for that.”

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Overdoses Spur Increased Access to Narcan in VT Prisons