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Vending machines that distribute lifesaving shots of Narcan represent the latest effort to combat the wave of opioid overdose deaths plaguing the country.
Across the U.S., cities including San Diego, Las Vegas and New York are installing vending machines and locker kiosks stocked with nasal sprays that contain naloxone, a medication that can be used in emergencies for someone who has overdosed on opioids, including fentanyl.
Often referred to as Narcan, the spray medication can bring back someone from the brink of death, instantly enabling them to breathe.
“I would say it’s pretty effective. It’s been accessed nearly 400 times since it’s been installed. I’m probably out restocking it twice a week,” Charlie Nolan, a harm reduction specialist with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, told Fox News.
The city agency recently installed a naloxone tower in front of the Blackwell Library in the West Philadelphia neighborhood.
“I think we’re reaching a pretty good number of people that either didn’t have access to it before, didn’t know where to get it or might have been uncomfortable talking to someone to get it,” Nolan said.
The tower holds a total of 44 Narcan shots.
“I think it’s been very effective in getting naloxone into the hands of more people.”
Each of the 22 lockers contains a kit with two doses of Narcan Nasal Spray, a face shield for rescue breathing, gloves and a quick guide on how to administer the shot.
Nolan says he restocks the kiosk often.
“We get a fair amount of people completing the survey that’s available to take on there as well,” he says. “I think it’s been very effective in getting naloxone into the hands of more people.”
Since it was installed in February of this year, the tower has been accessed nearly 400 times.
Of those, nearly half of the users filled out an anonymous survey that collects their zip code, gender and ethnicity.
Andrew Best, director of the Department of Public Health, said the department is unable to determine how many of these doses have been used to save someone from an overdose — but he believes the pilot program is effective.
“People are forgetting that individuals are overdosing in their homes,” Best told Fox News. “So, having access to that lifesaving medication — it may be difficult to quantify, but we know that individuals are accessing the naloxone and using it.”
The pilot program for this locker is part of a wider initiative to distribute lifesaving Narcan throughout a city that has been hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis.
In 2020, the city recorded over 1,200 overdose deaths. The city estimates data will show an increase in 2021.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health also provides harm reduction training with fentanyl testing strips and instructs people on how to administer Narcan shots in addition to addiction recovery treatments.
“I think it’s very important because as we’re seeing with just the trends and what’s happening, we haven’t finalized the numbers for 2021, but we can already estimate that [overdose deaths] may possibly be higher,” Best said.
“An individual just goes and hits B7 and the kit drops out and then they go on their way.”
“So, we want to make sure that we provide this lifesaving medication wherever we can to all different groups of people and all different types of communities.”
Plans are already in the works to install a second tower near the intersection of 60th and Market streets, and the department is hoping to install more if they continue to prove effective.
With over 100,000 overdose deaths across the U.S. in 2021 alone, according to a recent CDC report, many cities and other municipalities across the country have been looking for ways to provide easier access to lifesaving Narcan to lower those numbers in 2022.
In Michigan, Wayne State University is installing 15 machines across the state, including on its campus in Detroit.
The free kiosks look like a more traditional vending machine and can be accessed anonymously by anyone who needs the overdose reversal drug.
“For our program, it does not require any payment or any kind of access identification,” Matt Costello, the program manager for the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice at Wayne State University, told Fox News.
“The payment mechanism has been shut off on all the machines that we’ve distributed. So, an individual just goes and hits B7 and the kit drops out and then they go on their way.”
Costello said the program was modeled after an initiative launched by the Los Angeles County Jail system, where vending machines stocked with Narcan were installed.
“We wanted to make Narcan available to individuals as they were released from the jail,” Costello said.
“The data shows us that the risks of overdose post-incarceration are extraordinarily high. So we’ve placed eight of the machines in county jails, seven in community settings, like a harm reduction agency or other kinds of treatment facilities where they can distribute the Narcan in a more efficient and easy manner.”
Wayne State has applied for a grant with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that will allow it to purchase and install 20 more machines throughout the state this October.
To date, Costello says over 19,000 individual doses of Narcan have been distributed through the 15 machines across the state.
“It’s never been as bad as it is now. And sadly, it’s probably going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Jim Crotty, a former deputy chief of staff for the Drug Enforcement Administration said in an interview with Fox News.
“This is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl, have contaminated the drug supply. It can be found in just about everything these days. And that’s what’s driving this spike in overdose deaths.”
“Certainly, we don’t want to see more Americans dying.”
He added, “We should be carpet-bombing our cities with naloxone. That’s how dire this crisis is.”
Crotty said he believed that while these vending machines could be effective in distributing doses of Narcan to those in need, it would provide only a stopgap measure for the larger issue of drug addiction and abuse.
“This is certainly the quickest, easiest thing we can do to try to lower the overdose death rate,” he said. “But again, that’s just the first step in solving the real problem, which is illicit drug use and drug trafficking. Vending machines and Narcan aren’t going to do that for us.”
He also said, “It’s really the illicit drugs themselves that are the problem. I think that’s where we should be focusing our efforts. Certainly, we don’t want to see more Americans dying.”