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Boxes holding Narcan in overdose hotspots can save lives, Massachusetts project shows


There's no single reason for the slight drop in opioid overdose deaths across most of the U.S. last year, but finding new ways to make Narcan available in public 24 hours a day is helping. WBUR reporter Martha Bebinger takes us to a so-called overdose hot spot in Springfield, Mass.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: A young man in khaki pants with a scarf tight at his neck was sprawled across the front steps of the South Congregational Church. He could have been asleep. But Darlene St. Jacques, who runs a food pantry at the church, knew what to look for.

DARLENE ST JACQUES: I checked his pupils. They were pinpointed, so that was it. I just Narcanned (ph) him, and he was OK. He came to.

BEBINGER: St. Jacques used Narcan from an unlocked plastic box bolted to a brick wall near one entrance to this church in a neighborhood of multifamily homes. Narcan is one brand of naloxone, the drug that can reverse an overdose. St. Jacques says she does not hesitate to use it.

ST JACQUES: You know, that's someone's daughter, son, sister, brother. It's a life. It's the gift of life. It's - I'm just glad they're out there. They should be all over.

BEBINGER: Springfield has seven such boxes in overdose hot spots. A social services agency called the New North Citizens' Council used a state grant to install them last year.

CARLOS MATIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

BEBINGER: Carlos Matias drives around, refilling the boxes. He's tried to put up more. Matias called five local churches, including South Congregational.

MATIAS: And every church refused except that one.

BEBINGER: Refused, says Matias, because they didn't understand how important naloxone is during the opioid crisis. Twenty-two million doses were distributed in the U.S. and Canada last year. Massachusetts data show the drug has reversed more than 4,600 overdoses in the last year and a half. But some people don't seem to want Narcan or the people who need it in their neighborhood. Herman Muckle ran to one of the boxes a few weeks ago when he saw a guy overdose. It was empty.

HERMAN MUCKLE: Somebody had taken the Narcan. And they put it on the ground, and they stepped on them.

BEBINGER: Muckle ran back and pressed his knuckles into the man's chest, a technique used to wake people up.

MUCKLE: I did a sternum rub until the ambulance came, and they took it from there.

BEBINGER: Was the person OK, or...

MUCKLE: Yeah, he survived.

BEBINGER: But Narcan from that box has saved lives. It's affixed to a brick building where the local sheriff's office has classes in anger management, parenting and GED prep. Dan Cruz, the security supervisor, comes outside to make sure the box is full.

DAN CRUZ: One time, this is what I found right on top of the box.

BEBINGER: Cruz holds up a piece of wooden board and reads a message scrawled in what looks like black marker.

CRUZ: Thank you, lifesaver. And then it says, look on back. It says, two people saved.

BEBINGER: What did you think when you saw that?

CRUZ: Immediately, I was like, what we're doing here is working.

BEBINGER: Each box is labeled opioid rescue kit in big red letters. Illustrated instructions explain how to use naloxone. A nonprofit that makes these boxes has sold more than a thousand in all 50 states to agencies and community groups like the one Matias works for. This is a calling for Matias. He's in recovery and lost a brother to an overdose.

MATIAS: Massachusetts is one of those places that I say, thank you, because, you know, people like me - they had a second chance.

BEBINGER: Now they are tacked to libraries, college and community health centers and public housing. There is resistance to installing more, but people who have saved a life using Narcan say it should be everywhere.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Springfield, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MNELIA SONG, "CLOSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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