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SALT LAKE CITY — In an effort to reach more people who are at risk of overdosing on prescription painkillers or heroin, the Salt Lake City Fire Department will begin giving out overdose reversal kits to patients, family members and their friends at the scene.
About 34 law enforcement agencies across the state carry naloxone kits. But Salt Lake City will be among the first fire departments in the nation to also leave kits with patients in anticipation of a future need.
"It's a change in philosophy to hand a medication over to someone on the scene," said Salt Lake City Fire Department medical services chief Michael Fox.
But Fox said that it's become clear over the last five years that the opioid epidemic is getting worse — and that not enough people had access to the overdose reversal drug.
"The fire department has unprecedented access to people right in the middle of crisis," Fox said.
Naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is a fast-acting drug that reverses the effects of heroin and prescription painkiller overdoses and restores breathing. There is no potential for abuse, and side effects are rare.
Paramedics and other first responders have carried naloxone for years. But they have rarely, until now, crossed the line into giving out kits to patients, family members and friends.
The organization Utah Naloxone, which works to get naloxone into the hands of the public, supplied the kits to the fire department.
Each kit contains two vials of naloxone and two syringes, along with instructions.
Dr. Jennifer Plumb, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Primary Children’s Hospital and co-founder of Utah Naloxone, said recent changes to Utah law have made some headway.
Most recently, a standing order signed by the Utah Department of Health allows pharmacies to dispense naloxone without a prescription.
But many people who are at risk of overdose "are not walking into their local health department to ask about it," Plumb said.
According to Plumb, Utah Naloxone and the Salt Lake City Fire Department saw an opportunity to make inroads with those who have already overdosed and are likely at risk of overdosing again.
Before giving out a kit, firefighters and paramedics will teach the recipient how to use naloxone. The kit also includes information on the consequences of IV drug use and where to get addiction treatment.
"It's such a great demonstration of creative thinking and strategizing because this problem is not getting better with all of our standard medical and public health approaches," Plumb said.
Fox said Salt Lake firefighters are called to respond to several overdoses per day, and that the department has seen a large increase in opioid overdoses starting about five years ago.
Nine of the department's fire engines now stock three naloxone kits that they can leave at the scene.
Plumb called it an atypical partnership — but one that is needed to combat an epidemic that kills 10 Utahns every week, according to the state health department.
"It's the front-line fire guys with harm reduction advocates who both just want the same thing, and that is not to have another death," she said.