Jessica Geschke is a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor and Recovery Coach with Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, a statewide peer-run group that helps people and their families through addiction recovery. She says a medication called Narcan saved her brother’s life.
Jessica says, “In 2017, my brother actually overdosed in my home. And I came home and found him – my kids were with me – and they were there and they watched me, essentially, give my brother Narcan, and bring him back to life.”
Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, a nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses. You can buy it in pharmacies without a prescription. It’s also available for free in three Madison locations. That’s thanks to a state program and coalition called the Wisconsin Narcan Direct Program.
Jessica’s organization, Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, and Serve You R-X, a pharmacy benefit management company, are taking access one step further. They began installing Narcan stations across the state in 2019, making the medication available free of charge, without prescription or registry information.
In Wisconsin, there were 1,201 opioid-related deaths in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has only released 2020 data during the first few months of the pandemic, those months saw higher than average opioid deaths, reaching a peak of 133 opioid-related deaths last May.
Geschke says that peak has motivated her to do more, “We thought about how we can get out there and help family members and even help people who are using, and people who are struggling with this addiction. And so that’s where this whole idea was developed. And this is prior to COVID even happening, and now with COVID, I mean, it’s just, it’s our driving force for doing it even more.”
Madison currently has three Narcan stations installed at the Howard Johnson hotel, Comfort Inn and Suites, and the HyVee Grocery store all on a two-mile stretch of East Washington Avenue. The locations were determined by ‘hotspots’ identified by the Madison Police Department.
Sharon Murillo is the CEO and President of Serve You R-X. She says more boxes are planned throughout the state. She says, “We’re also looking at heat maps of the area to see where there’s the most addictions occurring and making sure that we’re strategically placing boxes in places where we believe there’s the greatest need.”
Murillo says while they’ve recently gotten more enthusiastic requests for installations, there’s still a stigma surrounding addiction at large. She cites one Wisconsin business that allowed a naloxone box to be installed but won’t let Murillo and the team say where, for fear that people will think their business is in a quote, “bad area.”
Geschke and Murillo see addiction sigmas as one of the big limiting factors for people getting Narcan. Cody Wenthur is an addiction expert at the UW school of Pharmacy who says that naloxone shouldn’t be stigmatized. Wenthur says, “In some cases people wrongly or unfortunately think that they’re being judged as having, you know, a problem if they get a naloxone prescription or get naloxone dispensed. When in reality, the reason for giving out naloxone, in most cases, is that it’s there as an emergency measure. It’s like if you’re cooking in your kitchen, you don’t expect to have a fire, but it’s always a good idea to have a fire extinguisher on hand.”
Wenthur also notes that naloxone has very few side effects and is safe even if given to someone overdosing on something other than opioids.
These boxes could be a matter of life and death for people experiencing an opioid overdose. Narcan is also available for free at two Public Health Madison Dane County offices and at Vivent Health in downtown Madison under the state’s Narcan direct program. The locations mentioned in the story can be found below.