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Iowa sees success in overdose reversals, but there’s much more work to do
Local police officers are making an impact in the charge to prevent opioid-related deaths.
In the first full year of officers carrying naloxone - a medicine that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose - the Cedar Rapids Police Department reported 12 successful overdose reversals.
In Linn County, where officials recorded 20 opioid-related deaths in 2017, 12 lifesaving interventions with naloxone is a significant achievement. Cedar Rapids police and other local departments carrying naloxone deserve credit.
While law enforcement officers can play an important role, they are not our community's most valuable resource when it comes to addressing the negative impacts of opioids. In many cases, the real first responders to a drug overdose are other people who use drugs, or their loved ones.
In addition to emergency responders carrying naloxone, the state also distributes free naloxone through the Iowa Department of Public Health and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. However, that program is burdened by poor design.
The state's 'telenaloxone” website requires users to enter their full name and birth date, then participate in a video chat with a pharmacist before the medicine can be mailed out.
In contrast, the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition - a local nonprofit that works directly with people who use drugs - has a much more accessible process. Its website asks requesters to create an anonymous ID, and uses a simple email or text message to confirm shipping details. The group also offers supplies in-person at select locations in Iowa, and connects clients with a wide range of other health and wellness services.
The results speak for themselves. In its recent annual report, the IHRC reported the naloxone it distributes was used in 1,423 overdose reversals in 2019. The coalition is based in Cedar Rapids, but distributes tools and resources across the state.
Quite understandably, many drug users have a strong distrust of government authorities. A system that requires them to call the police or file personal information on a state website is a huge barrier to access. Officials should seek ways to promote privacy, and also support independent nonprofits doing similar work.
There is a sense that law enforcement and some parts of the health community are at odds with the harm reduction movement. There is a long-standing assumption that distributing tools for safer drug use will encourage people to use drugs. In reality, there's evidence people with use disorders are more likely to seek care if they are connected with harm reduction organizations.
The truth is Iowa needs multiple approaches to reducing the harmful effects of drug use.
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