(Photo courtesy of NALOXBOX). “Naloxbox unit: opioid rescue kit.”
With opioid overdoses on the rise, local health agencies and first responders are coming together in Lowell to find a solution. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, there have been 173 confirmed deaths from opioid overdose in the city of Lowell since 2020. That is an average of 57 deaths per year strictly from opioid overdoses.
This data was posted last June and coincides with the alarming increase in opioids like heroin, but more specifically fentanyl, that have found their way onto the streets of Lowell and surrounding areas over the last few years.
One response to the city’s problem is placing opioid overdose reversal tools around Lowell. The Greater Lowell Health Alliance, which is a non-profit public health organization, has implemented the “Naloxbox” program, which equips the city with a opioid overdose reversal drug known as Narcan (Naloxone in generic form) and places it in “a plexiglass box with a hinged door that Velcro’s shut, which contains four kits of Naloxone and a barrier mask for rescue breaths,” according to a statement released by the GLHA last year.
Dr. Hannah Tello, the Director of Special Projects & Evaluation at GLHA, explained how the distribution of the Naloxboxes are very deliberate, saying the boxes are “placed in passive places where people can get Narcan…no cost, no need to show an ID or insurance card – you don’t even have to talk to anyone or ask permission.”
The accessibility to this life-saving medication makes it available with no questions asked. The GLHA wanted to have well-thought-out locations to place these boxes and found the most effective locations through data analysis. “We used overdose data to identify areas of high overdose and installed boxes on telephone poles or fences, or whatever was accessible near those places,” said Dr. Tello. “Ideally people have Narcan with them long before they ever need to use it, but in cases where it’s needed imminently, having a box nearby is the difference between life and death.”
Anyone who needs to access the Naloxone at any of the locations is protected under the Good Samaritan Law, which protects the person administering the Naloxone and the person overdosing from any criminal charges or prosecution for possession or use of controlled substances.
Tello’s work at the GLHA is part of a larger network within the city of other public health organizations and law enforcement to try and educate the public about substance abuse dangers while providing a network of support to help those affected by addiction. Tello says, “We have representatives from Tewksbury police and the Frontline initiative on several of our task forces and our steering committee. We support and fund a lot of primary prevention work in schools and with young people. We also host the Substance Use Task Force, an inter-agency coalition that meets monthly to implement SUD (substance use disorder) related projects.”
The GLHA also works with first responders like Trinity EMT, who send anonymous overdose data to the GLHA to keep them informed of overdose trends in the area. Tello says, “Trinity’s willingness to share data about overdose calls they receive has completely changed the game in terms of being able to launch public health responses quickly as new overdose trends are emerging. Our collaborative work with UML on Naloxboxes also involved the university EMS team.”
The efforts of the GLHA and their affiliates help equip the people of Lowell with much-needed access to lifesaving medication in a city overrun by overdoses. “Lowell has some of the highest opioid overdose rates in the state, year over year,” says Tello. “Almost every overdose death in the state involves fentanyl now. In 2015, 57% of overdose deaths in MA involved fentanyl, in 2022, that number rose to 93%.”
The increase in fentanyl on the streets of Lowell is broadening the demographics of people who need life-saving drugs. “The influx of fentanyl-contaminated substances is changing a little bit of the perception of who Naloxone is for because we are seeing increases in rates of overdose for people who are not injection drug users: they consider themselves casual stimulant users or even first-time users of things like counterfeit Adderall,” says Tello.
On top of the Naloxboxes, the GLHA hopes that more people will begin to carry the lifesaving drug with them because of the unpredictable drug landscape that the presence of fentanyl has created in the city. “We continue to promote our “Narcan is for Everyone” campaign, which is our effort to encourage folks to carry Narcan the same way people might carry a tampon, or a condom, or a ChapStick, as something you yourself might not need, but you might be able to help someone who does need it,” says Tello. Naloxone can be ordered at your local pharmacy or obtained from local health agencies in Lowell.