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After months of uncertainty, program to distribute free opioid overdose reversal kits relaunches in Idaho

A packaged box of nasal spray naloxone on a cardboard box
Kootenai Fire and Rescue
Kootenai Fire and Rescue will now be in charge of sending the free opioid reversal drug, also known as Narcan, to requesting organizations across Idaho.

A free Naloxone distribution program is relaunching after a few months of being on pause.

Kootenai Fire and Rescue will now be in charge of sending the free opioid reversal drug, also known as Narcan, to requesting organizations across Idaho.

In April, state legislators restricted naloxone distribution to first responders only, drawing the ire of advocates statewide. The new program was previously run by the Harm Reduction Project which no longer qualified under the language of the new law.

Advocates had feared the new restrictions on distribution could lead to needless deaths as the majority of opioid overdose reversals in the state were administered with naloxone distributed through non first responder organizations.

The program now run by Kootenai Fire Health and Welfare is funded by the same federal grant as before and will serve the same purpose.

“We didn't have to go and create a bunch of new processes, a lot of that already existed, which was fantastic”, Pete Holley the Deputy Chief of Operations for Kootenai Fire said. “Idaho Harm Reduction Project has done a fantastic job for setting us up for success.”

Opioid overdoses can cause severe breathing depression and sedation, leading to death.

Naloxone temporarily reverses these effects by blocking the receptors flooded by the opioids, allowing time for further medical intervention. Naloxone does not need medical training to be administered. The kits distributed through this program come in the form of a nasal spray.

Holley said they are very happy to get kits back in the hands of Idahoans. He compared having Naloxone kits in the community to Automated External Defibrillators (EDs) the medical device used to help those experiencing sudden cardiac arrest.

“We look at Narcan the same way,” he said. “There's a life saving mechanism that we can provide in the community by a lay person. It's really easy to learn how to do. It's really easy to administer and it can make a huge impact.”

When the program relaunched in early December, Holley said there was a backlog of about 4,000 requests to address. They’ve since tackled about 2,600 orders and are working to finish the rest in the coming few days.

“That backlog told us right off the bat that there was a need in the state that was being unmet,” he said.

Behavioral Health Administrator for the Department of Health and Welfare Ross Edmunds said the timing of this new partnership was critical as organizations were running out.

“Communities are struggling with this, particularly with the terrible sort of epidemic of fentanyl that has taken over,” he said. In 2022, 381 people died from drug overdoses in Idaho, half from fentanyl use.

Edmunds said most of the $8 million federal grant goes towards prevention and treatment, while roughly $1.2 million will be spent on the kits themselves.

“Our goal is never to use naloxone and just walk away,” he said, adding folks who received an intervention were connected to treatment options to avoid further incidents.

Holley from Kootenai Fire said the program also serves to destigmatize helping those affected by drug use. There is no specific profile to those who might need the life-saving drug, he said.

“We see school teachers, we see CEOs of businesses, we see personal trainers from gyms. it's not one type of person,” he said.

In 2022, the program delivered about 25,000 kits. As drug overdose deaths continue to rise in the state and across the country, Kootenai fire is hoping to expand the program by distributing 30,000 kits in the coming year.

Correction: a previously aired version of this story reported 358 overdose deaths in Idaho for 2022. The Department of Health and Welfare reports 381 overdose deaths for that year.

As the Canyon County reporter, I cover the Latina/o/x communities and agricultural hub of the Treasure Valley. I’m super invested in local journalism and social equity, and very grateful to be working in Idaho.

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