As the La Crosse area sees an increase in opioid-related deaths, Gundersen Health System is creating a new program to distribute resource kits with an opiate overdose antidote.
Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance will become the first ambulance service in Wisconsin to allocate Naloxone kits when the program launches this month.
Tri-State Ambulance paramedics or other responders will first administer naloxone in suspected drug overdose cases. Naloxone can reverse the deadly effect of heroin and other opioids.
Gundersen Emergency Services physician Chris Eberlein, MD, said as overdose numbers rise, so does the number of people who are reluctant to come to the hospital.
“It could be other commitments at home, or they are fearful of prosecution,” Eberlein said. “They are embarrassed. They think people are going to stigmatize them. Our community has seen a substantial increase in overdose deaths this year. I believe this is due to the stressors associated with COVID-19 including economic factors, isolation, and difficulty obtaining traditional mental health and addiction services.”
That’s why Eberlein looked for new ways to get naloxone to patients. Users who are revived and refuse transport for additional care are eligible to receive a kit that includes naloxone, a mask for rescue breathing, usage instructions, and information on how to get help in the community. Most overdose patients are transported to a hospital, where the kits are available.
“The goal here is to keep them alive until they get help,” he said. “Naloxone is just a small part of it. The real bulk of the kit is the promotion of getting help for the addiction.”
That is why the kits include 15 pages of local resources for addiction help and treatment.
Paramedics may also distribute the kits when responding to other medical calls if opioid abuse is known or suspected. He adds the kits are not just for those who have an addiction to an illicit substance.
“These are also kits for patients who, for whatever reason, mistakenly took an extra dose,” Eberlein explained. “Or there are some patients who have dementia. We see overdoses in patients that are not just drug users, and we also want to protect those patients.”
Eberlein adds positive community perception is also important for effective recovery.
“We’ve made huge strides in the last few years that this is more of a disease,” he said. “The stigma is being reduced, so patients are more willing to come in and say they have a problem. Hopefully, we can continue that road. There are many community members who have had an addiction and struggled with it to the point of needing emergency medical care. They beat that addiction and are productive members of society doing great things.”
In the past, state regulations did not allow such kits because the medication needed to be administered by a paramedic. Eberlein said he took action once he learned that rule changed in recent weeks.
The kits are available through grant money received in collaboration between Gundersen Health System and the county health department.