The nasal spray Narcan is used to save the lives of people who overdose on opioids. Credit: FlickrCC / governortomwolf

Bexar County first responders saved 1,869 lives in 2017 by administering Narcan to people who had overdosed, according to a report presented to the City and County Joint Opioid Task Force.

Narcan is nasal spray version of naxolone, a medication that can temporarily stop or reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and was used by first responders to treat people who otherwise may have died from drug overdoses.

Making opioid reversal drugs more widely available has been a main charge for the task force, which met on Tuesday to discuss its education and awareness initiatives. The task force is a collaborative effort between the City and County to combat the opioid epidemic in Bexar County, which has the third-highest per-capita rate of overdose deaths in Texas as of 2016.

While reversing overdoses helps in the short term, Dr. Jennifer Potter, associate dean for research in the School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio and the task force’s treatment committee chair, told the Rivard Report that addressing access to treatment with both medical professionals and the community members impacted by the opioid epidemic is crucial to improving outcomes for those who are addicted.

“We have to get away from just keeping people from overdosing, but preventing it from happening,” Potter said. “That is what will reduce deaths.”

Limited access to services is the biggest challenge that local residents face, Potter said. While there are treatment facilities throughout the city, there are few primary care doctors who are sanctioned to prescribe drugs to combat substance abuse.

In an effort to educate doctors and other medical professionals about treatment options, the task force is hosting the first San Antonio Substance Use Symposium on Friday, April 20, and Saturday, April 21, at the Academic Learning and Teaching Center at UT Health San Antonio.

Friday’s agenda includes a panel discussion and community conversation about where substance abusers can get help for addiction locally, while Saturday’s discussions will focus on training medical doctors in prescribing buprenorphine, a medication to help people reduce or quit their use of opiates.

This map shows the number of opioid overdoses per zip code in Bexar County where first responders administered Narcan on site.
This map shows the number of opioid overdoses per zip code in Bexar County where first responders administered Narcan on site. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Fire Department

Buprenorphine is one of three medications commonly used to treat opioid addiction and, along with naltrexone, can be administered in a doctor’s office. The other medication, Methadone, has to be administered in an inpatient drug clinic.

In order for a medical practitioner to be able to prescribe buprenorphine, he or she must receive a registered waiver that allows them to prescribe the medication outside of a clinical setting.

“The more physicians we have waivered, the more treatment options there are available throughout Bexar County,” said T.J. Mayes, chief of staff for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

There are 185 participants registered to attend this weekend’s symposium, including community leaders, medical doctors, and community members whose lives have been impacted by the opioid epidemic. This includes 49 local physicians who are eligible to complete the training necessary to receive a waiver to prescribe buprenorphine.

Mayes said that as more doctors become eligible to prescribe the medication, the better able the task force will be to help coordinate effective services for people needing treatment outside of a hospital setting.

In zip code 78207, just west of downtown San Antonio, 310 overdoses occurred in 2017 in which Narcan was administered and effectively reversed the overdose. On the Northeast side, zip code 78218 saw 74 overdoses reversed by Narcan, while 78227 in Southwest San Antonio saw 75 overdoses in which the treatment was used. The task force plans to target zip codes with high rates of overdoses to connect residents there to services within their community.

“We need to have these critical conversations about substance abuse and how we manage it in our community,” Potter said. “I am tired of hearing about how people can’t access safe, high-quality treatment.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.