Michigan libraries soon to be stocked with Narcan so staff can fight public overdoses

Libraries will soon have the green light to stock and administer Narcan to people who have overdosed.

This comes after the Michigan House and Senate both approved a bill that would remove the liability for library employees to issue life-saving drugs for overdosed victims. The bill passed unanimously. The drafting and subsequent consensus behind the bill spotlights the role that public institutions like libraries now hold in their fight against drug addiction and overdoses.

"Libraries are open to all," said Kristin Shelley, the president of the Michigan Library Association. "We don't care which people walk in. We allow a certain degree of anonymity."

But that anonymity brings the potential for an addict to take drugs at public libraries. Shelley, who is also the director of the East Lansing Public Library has seen what can happen when this combination takes effect - testifying at the Michigan legislature on behalf of the bill.

Earlier in her career, when she worked at a different library she came across a woman who had overdosed in the bathroom. Despite the police department being only a block and a half away, that day they didn't respond quick enough. The woman, who was college-educated and was described as upper-middle class, later died.

Shelley tells this story because in these situations, "minutes matter."

"Librarians, the majority (of them) got into this work to help," she said. "To help people and help them find whatever they are looking for. (But) we're also saving lives."

In April 2018, the U.S. Surgeon General recommended more Americans carry naloxone (also referred to as Narcan). Dr. Jerome Adams also encouraged anyone at risk - including their friends and family - carry the antidote as well. He encouraged carrying more partly because of how ubiquitous the problem is, and because it happens in both private and public places.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that many people, especially homeless populations often use public spaces like bathrooms and streets to inject drugs like heroin and fentanyl. That study found while 40 percent of those surveyed injected in public places.

Some district libraries in western Michigan have already experienced public overdoses. They include Kalamazoo and Kent County. Several other libraries on the west side of the state now carry Narcan.

In Ferndale, the public library is virtually next to the police station. However, for both the library's director as well as the police department's community engagement officer, that's still too far away.

"I think Narcan should be in every house and every establishment because you never know when an opioid overdose is going to occur," said Baron Brown, with the Ferndale police department. "It's one of the simplest ways to save a life."

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Brown said that Ferndale police officers are responding to fewer overdose incidents. That doesn't mean that fewer people are taking too much, but instead having the availability of Narcan has made it easier to revive people. That doesn't mean it's a solution, or that anyone who is revived doesn't still need medical attention. But it's a step in the right direction.

Brown also cited a study showing that Narcan in the hands of community members can reach those who have overdosed much more often than first responders.

"There's no reason why a library staff member shouldn't be able to administer Narcan," he said.

The evolution of the epidemic has led to some interesting developments. Brown said while the police department does respond to fewer overdoses, of the cases they do respond to, they have to administer more Narcan doses. Of the 11 incidents that officers have responded to, nine of them required more than one dose.

The department carries 4 milligram doses, instead of 2. In early June, they administered four doses of Narcan.

The bill has moved relatively quickly through the legislature. It was initially introduced last year to expand protections against library staff that hadn't been included in previous bills. However, time ran out in 2018 when a slurry of bills were introduced during the lame duck period.

After being reintroduced in March it cruised through committee, receiving unanimous consent when representatives and senators voted.

Jenny Marr, the Ferndale library director said they plan on teaming up with the police department for training sessions in the near future.

"It's important to do it. Minutes can count," she said. "Working with them (the police department) and their larger plan. It's important as a community anchor."