Every ambulance is stocked with potentially life-saving equipment and treatments, and on Wednesday each of Gundersen Tri-State’s 20 ambulances were loaded with another tool for intervention and prevention: Leave-behind overdose safety kits.
Gundersen Tri-State is the first ambulance service in Wisconsin to give out the kits, which contain opiate overdose antidote Naloxone, more commonly known as Narcan. They also contain a pocket mask for rescue breathing, readable and video link kit instructions and a resource packet for addiction and counseling services, compiled by the local Alliance to HEAL.
“It’s a really big step and another piece of a complex puzzle to get patients the treatment they need,” says Chris Eberlein, medical director for Tri-State and a Gundersen emergency services physician. “We’ve been working towards this for a long time, but because of regulations we weren’t able to do it until recent changes. So we’re really excited to provide this service.”
While paramedics responding to overdoses alway urge the patient to come to the hospital, if the individual is responsive and meets the criteria to refuse transport the paramedic will encourage them to seek help and leave a kit with them after going over proper usage. Kits are also available to overdose patients who are brought to the hospital, and paramedics may distribute the kits when responding to other emergency calls if opioid use is known or suspected.
The kits are coming at a particularly needed time, as local overdose deaths continue to climb this year. Overdose fatalities have now reached 27, surpassing the 2019 total of 22. The coronavirus pandemic has played a large part in the spike in cases, and Eberlein says the trend is likely to continue as COVID-19 continues to result in increased isolation, job loss, financial challenges and other stressors.
“Unfortunately I think it will be more of the same,” Eberlein says. “We’re going to continue to see higher overdose deaths. This patient population is very vulnerable in general, and the pandemic has really added additional stress onto everyone due to the social distancing and difficulties seeking care, economic stress — everything that everyone else is feeling with the epidemic is affecting them as well and their coping mechanisms are not as robust, so often times they end up utilizing the illicit drugs and that’s unfortunate.”
Eberlein says he is “very grateful for the opportunity to help the community” through the kits and hopes they help in making the community a safer place. Seeking help for addiction, however, is still crucial, and he encourages those struggling to do so. Health care providers come from a place of compassion, not criticism.
“We’re really fighting the judgment on these patients, the stigma in the community,” Eberlein says. “(But) you don’t get judged when you come into the hospital, and I really encourage them to come in and seek out the care that they need.
“And if they’re not willing to come in, please reach out to those resources — they’re lots of people in the community who are willing to help, but they can’t help if you don’t reach out. So please reach out.”
Emily Pyrek can be reached at [email protected].
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