RESTON, Va. (WRIC) — Overdoses claimed the lives of 1,702 Virginians just in the first three quarters of 2020. Already in 2021, the Richmond Police Department (RPD) has been called to 23 suspected fatal overdoses — but that didn’t have to happen.
Naloxone is an overdose reversal medication that advocates say works miracles. The problem is being able to access it.
“The people who are highest risk for needing naloxone are also usually the ones who have the most likelihood of having barriers to accessing it, like financial barriers, transportation barriers, stigma-related barriers,” said Ginny Atwood Lovitt, executive director of the Chris Atwood Foundation (CAF).
Lovitt and her family started the foundation in 2013, after a tragically losing her 21-year-old younger brother, Christopher, to a heroin overdose.
“I was the one who came home and found him the day that he died and I did not have naloxone because there was zero accessibility to the public at that point,” Lovitt said.
Over the years, laws have evolved to allow community distribution of naloxone. Throughout Virginia, law enforcement officers carry now overdose reversal medication with them — including Virginia State Police and Chesterfield County Police.
“Most community access to naloxone operates on a ‘you come to us’ model,” Lovitt said. “So somebody who is in crisis is expected to come seek it out, despite the fear of law enforcement, the fear of stigma, and all those barriers that I mentioned, and that just doesn’t work for a lot of people, especially folks in rural areas where there is no community access to naloxone at all.”
There are also now laws in place in Virginia to protect those who call for emergency assistance in the event of an overdose from facing legal action. However, Lovitt said it takes time to get that message out to people, and even still, there may be distrust.
That’s why the CAF provides naloxone to Virginia residents in a discrete and convenient manner.
“‘How can we make sure that every single person who needs this medication has it?'” Lovitt said. “The clear answer was, ‘We’ve got to mail it to them,’ and, of course, in COVID, that has become even more critical than ever because people who otherwise normally could come out to us, suddenly can’t.”
Over the past year, Lovitt says the CAF has shipped out more than 5,000 doses of naloxone in partnership with NEXT Distro, an online and mail-based platform designed to reduce opioid deaths. Since 2017, over 670 reported overdose reversals have been conducted using the naloxone sent out by the CAF.
“People who use drugs have been so stigmatized and so criminalized for so long that they have a mentality that they have to take care of themselves; they can’t call for help because nobody’s got their back,” Lovitt said. “We want them to know that we’ve got their back, and whatever we have to do to make sure that they stay safe and stay alive, that’s what we’re going to do, and, in this case, we have to mail it to a lot of people to make sure they have it.”
Lovitt believes that some of the stigma associated with substance use disorder comes from the way it’s discussed in terms of who is most impacted. While statistics show that substance abuse impacts people from all walks of life, regardless of demographics, Lovitt said that’s not the point.
“Even if it was only impacting ‘those people,’ we should still care about it. That’s kind of the issue within the issue,” Lovitt said. “Saying that addiction impacts anybody and overdose impacts anybody can kind of make some people perk up and pay a little bit more attention to it. But also, at the same time, it’s kind of feeding into that same stigma.”
The CAF tries to make the potentially life-saving process of ordering and administering naloxone as simple as possible. People are encouraged to use their real name to place the online order, but it is not required.
“We give out the intramuscular naloxone and you’ll also get instructions on how to administer it, alcohol pads to clean the site, and we also have some cards, just letting you know how you can reach out to us if you’re interested in getting additional help,” Lovitt said. “Surviving an overdose is not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning.”
For instance, Lovitt said the coronavirus pandemic has made it particularly difficult for those battling substance use disorders, as the services normally available to them are limited or inaccessible.
“I see the response to the overdose crisis as a form of COVID response, as well, because they’re going hand-in-hand so much,” she said. “It’s the people who are in active use or in early recovery who are getting hit hardest.”
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) reported 1,486 fatal overdoses in 2018 and 1,626 in 2019. In just the first three quarters of 2020, those numbers were surpassed, and they may continue to rise as additional data becomes available.
“My hope moving forward is that every single person who need naloxone has access to it in an easy way,” Lovitt said. “I would like to see pharmacies providing it for free. I would really like to see hospital emergency departments dispensing take-home kits for individuals who they’ve just treated for an overdose. Unfortunately, a lot of people are leaving hospitals after an overdose with no resources, no follow-up, no take-home protection, and that’s a huge missed opportunity to save a lot of lives.”
To take part in this life-saving effort, Virginia residents can order naloxone online here. Lovitt says that while it does expire, based on the manufacturer, after approximately two years, studies show it retains some efficacy even after 10 years have passed.