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Group working to expand access to opioid overdose drug naloxone

Jeremy Sharp, a founding member of the grassroots organization Georgia Overdose Prevention, fears 2020 will be a “tough year” for those in substance use recovery.

“It’s probably going to be the toughest year for overdoses that we’ve ever seen. Of course, a lot of that has been exacerbated by COVID, isolation, depression, the anxiety, the lack of contact with other people and the lack of things to do,” said Sharp, who also started the Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter at the University of North Georgia.

The Times examined overdose trends and found local recovery centers and hospitals have observed the same.

To combat this, Sharp and Georgia Overdose Prevention have been ramping up distribution of naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and revive the patient. The drug is commonly sold by the brand name Narcan, and the kits through Georgia Overdose Prevention are funded through grants.

“If you look at a heat map of overdoses and (emergency department) visits, that whole Appalachian region, including parts of North Georgia, are lit up (with) some of the highest rates in the entire country,” Sharp said.

Sharp said he has started monthly naloxone distribution at local treatment centers, where he will give out kits and train people on how to use them.

Jeremy Sharp founded the University of North Georgia Chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and has been a vocal advocate drug policy in the Georgia government.

Sharp has also placed an emphasis on street outreach, as he has been concerned about getting the reversal drug into the hands of those using and potentially at risk of a fatal overdose.

“I’ll drive around to different gas stations which I know drug users hang out at, and I’ve begun to visit some of the homeless camps. … Not only are we bringing them Narcan, but we’re bringing them food, bringing them clothing, sometimes camping supplies (and) things like that,” Sharp said.

In the past week, he said he has learned of four confirmed reversals with Narcan, all in Gainesville and Hall County.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill 121 in 2017, known as the Jeffrey Dallas Gay, Jr. Act, allowing Georgia pharmacists to dispense naloxone over-the-counter.

Gay Jr., of Gainesville, died in October 2012 of an opioid overdose, one month before his 22nd birthday.

From his work, Sharp said pharmacies have reported low interest from customers on buying the drug over-the-counter.

Scottie Barton, owner of Riverside Pharmacy, said the demand hasn’t been too great in the past three years since the legislative change.

"It’s one of those things that we carry. We’ve got the standing order with the state that if somebody comes in and needs it to be dispensed, we can definitely do that. But we just haven’t had a lot of requests,” he said.

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Scottie Barton, owner of Riverside Pharmacy, works on a computer on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

Barton estimated fewer than 50 units sold since the change in its availability.

“With our opioid patients that we see come in who are on opioid drugs, we highly suggest that type of thing to them,” he said.

Barton said the manufacturer usually puts a two-year shelf life limit on the naloxone. He said they keep a close watch on their inventory and communicate with their wholesaler if it gets close to that limit.

Sharp said he has heard from drug users that there can be a fear of judgment when buying in a pharmacy, but he said he believes the biggest barrier can be money.

“Even with insurance, Narcan can have copays of $75-$150. People who use drugs are often financially burdened and can’t afford to purchase naloxone,” Sharp said. 

Gainesville Police Cpl. Jessica Van said the department currently has 48 doses and recently reordered more.

“We try to replenish when we get down to about (five) doses,” Van said.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office has 50 kits of naloxone ready to be issued. The department said there are many “currently issued in patrol and court services,” but an exact number was not available.

The department said it replenishes on an “as-needed basis by direct purchase from the manufacturer.”

“The last order placed was at the beginning of this year, when we purchased 60 doses at a cost of $75 per dose,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote in an email.

Neither department had statistics on how many kits have been used in the field.