New Jersey moves to boost naloxone availability

Health orders require pharmacists provide overdose antidote without prescriptions

By: - September 1, 2021 6:58 am

Gov. Phil Murphy in a statement called the move “critical to strengthen our ability to save lives by preventing overdose deaths.” (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

New Jersey moved to expand the use of naloxone Tuesday by allowing pharmacists to dispense the opioid overdose antidote without a prescription and broadening the number of situations where the countermeasure can be used, moves that come amid a rising trend of overdoses.

Activists have long sought to increase the availability of naloxone, which is sometimes referenced under its brand name, Narcan. They hailed Tuesday’s order from the state Department of Health as a much-needed step in the right direction.

“The reality is that people who use drugs and their loved ones are the ‘first of the first’ responders to overdose, and responsible for nine out of ten overdoses when the right policies are in place,” said Jenna Mellor, director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “New Jersey’s updated naloxone law removes obstacles to ‘flooding the streets’ with all FDA-approved forms of naloxone, which is what we need to reduce overdose deaths.”

Existing law allows physicians to prescribe naloxone to anyone who might be in a position to stop an overdose, but prescriptions are required.

The measure also allows pharmacists to give syringes or nasal sprayers to individuals seeking the opioid overdose antidote and requires they provide information about naloxone use and overdose prevention along with the countermeasure.

Gov. Phil Murphy in a statement called Tuesday’s move “critical to strengthen our ability to save lives by preventing overdose deaths.”

Mellor’s organization has previously found supplies of naloxone wanting among drug treatment facilities, county drug and alcohol programs, and social service organizations engaged with people with substance abuse disorders.

A second health department order announced Tuesday allows people with naloxone to hand off their doses to others who they believe are at risk of an overdose or who may be around those at risk of an overdose.

New data available

The announcement coincided with the launch of New Jersey’s Overdose Data Dashboard, which provides data on naloxone administrations, suspected drug overdose deaths, and non-fatal hospital visits related to drug use.

“The expansion of naloxone distribution and continuing improvements in data are important steps in meeting the health needs of all New Jerseyans,” said Brittany Holom-Trundy, senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Only by supporting the unique health needs of all residents can we truly recognize health as a human right and overcome the overdose crisis.”

As of Aug. 23, the state has recorded 2,161 suspected drug overdose deaths, putting New Jersey on pace to exceed the 3,051 such deaths recorded law year.

The bulk of those deaths are spread roughly evenly among residents aged 25 to 64, with Black residents accounting for roughly a quarter of the deaths despite Black residents accounting for just 15% of the state’s population, according to previously unavailable data added to the dashboard maintained by the Office of the Chief State Medical examiner Tuesday.

Men accounted for about 71% of suspected drug overdose deaths.

Naloxone administrations were down slightly in the first six months of 2021. First responders and others administered 6,320 doses of the antidote between Jan. 1 and June 30, down from 6,676 over the same period in 2020.

With 906 administrations, Camden County continued to account for the majority of naloxone incidents, followed closely by Essex County, which had 900.

Only 4.4% of those treated with naloxone in the first six months of 2021 died anyway. The overwhelming majority of patients, 79%, were treated and taken to a hospital. Another 15% received the antidote but refused further service.

At the same time, the number of naloxone incidents is rising once more. The state reported 1,226 such incidents in June, the highest since July 2020, when it recorded 1,335 Narcan events.

The new portal replaces periodic releases from the chief medical examiner, eliminating data delays that have long been a source of frustration for advocates and observers.

“Before, we were waiting months sometimes to learn official overdose numbers,” Mellor said. “Now, the dashboard updates them every week.”

Narcan is typically administered by first responders, though individuals at risk of an opioid overdose, their family members, and their friends can receive naloxone kits through health care centers in Rockaway, Neptune, and Camden.

New Jersey’s fight against the opioid epidemic will soon receive a major windfall in the form of roughly $900 million, the state’s share of settlements with Purdue and Johnson & Johnson over the pharmaceutical giants’ roles in kickstarting the crisis.

Language in the current fiscal year’s budget dedicates such funds to the Opioid Recovery and Remediation Fund, which won’t exist until Murphy signs a bill creating it. The measure unanimously passed both chambers of the Legislature in June.

It’s not clear how the money will be used, but the fund’s revenues are dedicated to drug addiction treatment and prevention programs.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.