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September 14, 2023

Congressional aides learn how to provide overdose aid

Credit: Roll Call

“Guys who are standing up, come take a seat behind the dais,” Rep. David Trone said to the handful of congressional aides hovering by the door of a packed committee hearing room Wednesday. It was standing room only in Longworth 1302 for the second annual naloxone training for congressional staff, and at Trone’s behest, the group of latecomers shuffled over to take the seats usually reserved for their bosses.

They crammed in to learn how to respond to an opioid overdose and administer naloxone, which is sold under the brand name Narcan. The drug, which comes in a nasal spray, quickly and safely blocks the effects of opioids like prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, though it also can cause immediate withdrawal effects akin to a brutal hangover.

“I’m always scared that something is going to happen, and so I want to make sure that I know how to use it,” said one House Democratic staffer, who spoke anonymously because she wasn’t authorized to talk with reporters. The H Street resident described calling an ambulance for a neighbor of hers who was overdosing. “Now I feel like I can actually do something instead of just calling 911, because I’ll actually get Narcan,” she said.

A Republican House aide, who also wasn’t authorized to speak with the press, said she planned to carry naloxone in her purse, if it was available. “If I could get it easily, I would always carry it with me,” she said, adding that she’s never witnessed an overdose.

But the intern she brought with her had. “I’ve given Narcan before, and it’s an amazing drug that really does save lives,” said the intern, who once worked as an EMT.

At least 60 aides attended the event, hosted by the Bipartisan Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Task Force, which doubled as a booster for legislation from the caucus. The organizers handed attendees the latest Congressional Research Service report on naloxone, along with a list of pending bills.

“WORK to Save Lives [Act] — we need everybody on that bill, we just dropped it today,” said Trone, a Maryland Democrat currently running for Senate. The bill would encourage employers to stock naloxone alongside first aid kits and train their workers on how to use it.

The issue is personal for Trone: His nephew died of an overdose in 2016. That is a tragedy increasingly shared by Americans. The overprescription of purported addiction-free painkillers like oxycodone fueled addiction across the nation. In recent years, powerful synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, have flooded the illegal drug markets. Overdose deaths from opioids have risen from 21,000 in 2010 to more than 80,000 people in 2021, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The event came a week after an over-the-counter version of naloxone went on sale, thanks to Food and Drug Administration approval earlier this year. Harm reduction activists worry the price — more than $40 for two doses — will discourage some from carrying the drug with them. “If it’s something that’s super expensive or harder to access, I don’t know if I would go out of my way to get some,” said the Republican aide.

Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, a Georgia Republican and former pharmacist, said he already does. “Everywhere I go, I carry naloxone,” he said.

Free naloxone is available through various private sector and government programs, including ones funded by federal State Opioid Response grants. Those grants have helped distribute 9 million free naloxone sprays and reversed 500,000 overdoses, according to Yngvild Olsen, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The Democratic staffer who called an ambulance for her neighbor said the man survived and thanked her later. “He went and checked into rehab because I called [an ambulance] at 2 a.m. on a Thursday night,” she said. “I really want to help make sure that keeps happening, and we keep saving people and don’t lose our neighbors.”