The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
In her job as the head of Arapahoe and Jefferson County chapter of Young People in Recovery, an organization that offers support for people struggling with substance abuse issues, Coreen Braden deals with someone experiencing an opioid overdose almost daily. In the fall of 2020, however, she was taken by complete surprise when she got a call that her mother had overdosed. “My mom had gone to the dentist and got a prescription for Percocet because she got a tooth pulled,” Braden says. “She followed the instructions of the dentist, took the Percocet, and in the car [ride] home, she overdosed.”
Paramedics rushed to the scene, and her mother’s life was saved by naloxone, a chemical most widely used as a nasal spray called Narcan, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. “People often get prescribed pain pills,” Braden says. “It’s a shock to our system, and [an overdose] can happen to anybody. The key is to bring Narcan home.”
Give One Year of 5280 for just $16.
Since 2017, Denver has experienced a record-breaking number of opioid overdoses. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl—a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and has been detected in cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine, and prescription drugs across the metro area—more than doubled. And this past year, nearly 2,000 Coloradans died of fentanyl overdoses, which is a significantly higher total than the previous two years.
“We noticed that there were increases in overdoses, particularly by fentanyl or other types of prescription opioids,” Marion Roarke, the substance abuse coordinator with the Department of Public Health and Environment, says. “The city wanted to do something about that.”
The city began offering free naloxone and fentanyl testing strips in September. According to Emily Williams, communications director for the city’s Department of Public Health, the amount of requests for the resources have more than quadrupled in recent weeks. She attributes the additional requests to increased awareness, especially after five people in a Commerce City apartment died after overdosing simultaneously from ingesting cocaine that had been unknowingly laced with fentanyl.
“You don’t know who is using; it could be anybody in your life,” Hayler Foster, substance abuse prevention coordinator at the Tri-County Health Department, says. “If there’s someone in your household that’s taking an opioid because they need to, you should have Narcan on hand. If you’re going to use any drugs, you should have Narcan because you don’t always know what you’re taking.”
The free naloxone and fentanyl testing strip program—which is a part of the city’s Opioid Response Strategic Plan, a multipronged action plan started in 2018 aimed at reducing the harm of opioids in Denver—requires residents to fill out an online form that asks a series of questions, such as your name, address, age, race, reason for the request, and whether you have used Narcan before. Anyone is allowed to refuse a specific question or say “I don’t know.”
The overdose prevention resources are sent by mail. The current wait time is a little over a week to receive two naloxone kits in the form of Narcan nasal sprays, and/or a pack of four fentanyl testing strips.
If you or someone you know currently takes drugs and needs access to resources sooner, Roarke suggests going to a syringe access program, such as the Harm and Action Reduction Center. You can also utilize the Wellness Winnie program, which is a mobile van that drops off overdose prevention resources around the city.
The technique for using Narcan is fairly straightforward and works much like an allergy relief nasal spray. One container is one dose, so you should only use the second dose if the person remains unresponsive for more than two minutes after using the first. The city’s website has two video tutorials, one in Spanish and one in English, on how to deploy the drug. Braden, from Young People in Recovery, hosts a monthly Narcan educational presentation, where she answers questions about the chemical and gives step-by-step instructions on how to use it.
Currently, residents also have the option to request naloxone from pharmacies around the city, but that requires a prescription and a fee, depending on their insurance plan. Roarke says she and her team worked to make these resources available for free online to curb any hassle or stigma that comes with going to a pharmacy.
Braden suggests Denver residents keep Narcan in their medicine cabinet. Due to temperature fluctuations, naloxone should not be stored in a car. The fentanyl testing strips come with specific instructions that should be read and followed thoroughly before using the drug that’s being tested. “Naloxone access has been a huge need in the community for a long time,” Roarke says. “We wanted to find a way to make this more accessible.”