Pierce and St. Croix County public health departments now have access to another lifeline in the battle against the potentially terminal effects of opioid overdosing.

Through Wisconsin Department of Health Services grants , the local public health departments will have the opportunity to provide doses of Narcan, a brand name nasal spray used in emergency opioid overdoses similar to injectable Naloxone, to clients and rural first responder agencies at no cost.

Pierce County Public Health applied for 120 Narcan doses and St. Croix County asked for 240 to be used within the year. In December, both departments received their full requests and doses will be ordered and allotted as needed from the state throughout the year.

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This month Pierce and St. Croix counties are rolling out training for internal public health employees and local law enforcement to get acquainted with Narcan and its lifesaving purpose.

“We’re starting with our county employees who are working with families. I think the next step is to look at community partners who also deal with the population who are using or are known users,” St. Croix County Public Health Director Kelli Engen said.

First responders including EMS workers, the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office, Hudson and River Falls police departments have experience carrying Narcan if the funds are available.

River Falls Sgt. Matthew Kennett said officers carry Narcan on their person or in a bag that is taken in and out of their squad car for their shifts to avoid extreme temperatures.

Pierce County Public Health Director AZ Snyder said this new outlet for Narcan availability is not about encouraging opioid use.

“Narcan is an opportunity to give someone who is suffering from opioid addiction one more chance at getting treatment. And it’s lifesaving for someone who may have valid prescriptions for pain and maybe accidentally overdosed. I think it also provides a level of comfort to family members and loved ones of someone struggling with an opioid addiction in a situation where it’s normal to feel very powerless,” Snyder said.

Common opioid prescriptions as listed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse are hydrocodone (Vicodin) oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), oxymorphone (Opana), morphine (Kadian, Avinza), codeine and fentanyl.

Heroin is also classified as an opioid. In 2018, St. Croix County recorded six emergency room visits due to heroin overdose, according to DHS data. Data for Pierce County was unavailable.

Snyder said she was pleased with local health providers that have proven to be conscious of prescription recommendations for opioids which impacts the counties’ dispensing numbers.

Dispensing rate

According to Pierce and St. Croix substance use data, both counties have an opioid dispensing rate per 100 people that’s almost half the statewide rate. In 2017, about 31 of every 100 people were prescribed an opioid in both Pierce and St. Croix counties.

While dispensing rates can be tracked, recording who may be using or abusing opioids is not an easy task.

“It’s difficult to accurately quantify the number of users,” Snyder said.

Six people were hospitalized in Pierce County for opioid overdose in 2018. St. Croix County saw almost double the number, with 14 who were hospitalized.

DHS reported in 93.8 per 100,000 of all statewide opioid overdose cases, patients were between the ages of 18 and 44. American Indians accounted for the highest rate of opioid overdoses in the same year, averaging 96.8 per 100,000. Blacks came in second 63.8 per 100,000.

“Some people say, ‘Well, opioids are not our problem, meth is our biggest drug that’s causing us the most trouble here’,” Engen said. “And to that I say, ‘We don’t know what’s in meth anymore.’ Meth could be laced with fentanyl. Meth could be laced with other kinds of narcotics, that Narcan could actually prevent a death.”

Opioids are agonists prescribed as pain relievers which bind to receptors in the brain, activating pain relief and dopamine, resulting in relaxation and slowed breathing. Narcan works as an antagonist to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, where too many receptors are filled and may stop breathing, by replacing and blocking opioids in the receptors.

Using Narcan does not permanently reverse overdosing and is not meant to replace the need for medical attention. Once Narcan has been administered, users should get to a hospital.

If given to someone suffering from another type of overdose which cannot be immediately labeled, Narcan can still be used and will not cause added harm or produce reactive symptoms, officials said.

After 2020, the future of Narcan availability through public health departments is unknown, but directors hope for continued support.

“I’m really hoping that this is something that the state can continue in the long term,” Snyder said.

People have access to Narcan in other ways and insurance may cover the cost. Narcan is available at the following local Wisconsin pharmacies, ranging in retail prices from around $70 up to $150:

  • CVS, Hudson
  • Family Fresh, New Richmond
  • Family Fresh, River Falls
  • Walmart, Hudson
  • Walmart, New Richmond

Ashley Rezacheck contributed to this story.