Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Nearly 80,000 Americans a year die from an overdose involving opioid painkillers, according to the most recent federal health statistics. Some of them might still be alive had someone nearby been carrying Narcan — a medication that can stop a life-threatening overdose in its tracks.
As addiction to these painkillers continues to reap a grim toll nationwide, two Minnesota counties are commendably taking pioneering steps to boost the number of people who have Narcan on hand and know how to use it. Counties within the state as well as those outside it should strongly consider following their lifesaving lead.
Many emergency responders and law enforcement officers across the nation already stand ready to administer Narcan, known generically as naloxone, when responding to calls for help. But precious minutes can pass before this assistance arrives. That may be the difference between life and death.
That's why Hennepin and Crow Wing counties merit praise for new initiatives to boost the number of Minnesota bystanders who can provide Narcan (or the generic) during this critical window of time. Both are providing training for county employees who want to carry the emergency treatment and use it if they encounter someone overdosing.
In a May 19 memo, Hennepin County Administrator David Hough said the large metro county is creating a policy to "explicitly authorize any county staff to carry and use naloxone while working after they take a short training."
In addition, the county intends to purchase Narcan for employees who complete the voluntary training.
Crow Wing County also began offering Narcan training to its employees this spring, also on a voluntary basis.
These efforts, while not a panacea, are nevertheless a pragmatic and compassionate response to the ongoing opioid public health crisis.
Hennepin County, the state's most populous, has more than 9,000 employees. Some employees, such as security officers, many health care staff and sheriff's deputies, already are trained to administer Narcan. But if even a small percentage of the remaining staff complete the training, that will significantly boost the ranks of Minnesotans prepared to save a life.
Crow Wing County has 494 employees, not including seasonal or temporary workers. The county has already held one Narcan training session, with 24 staff trained to date. Another 25 are interested in attending another session this month.
These conscientious employees deserve thanks. Their training will strengthen the region's emergency care capacity. It's also important to note that Crow Wing comprises the core of the state's cabin country. The county's initiative may save the life of someone who does not reside within its borders.
The two counties' initiatives are a smart response to a recent change by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Earlier this year, the agency made a Narcan nasal spray available over the counter. The nasal spray is less intimidating to use for the general public than an injection. The two Minnesota counties' initiatives capitalize on easier access and the spray's ease of use. Cost for Narcan ranges from $35 to $65, with retail markup potentially adding to consumers' over-the-counter costs.
It's unclear how many other counties nationally have launched similar initiatives. The National Association of Counties isn't formally tracking this, a spokeswoman told an editorial writer on Wednesday. The Association of Minnesota Counties was aware of just the two counties in Minnesota.
Also deserving of a shout-out: Hennepin County librarians who have led a high-profile push for the county to expand its policy on who is authorized to carry Narcan at work.
An eye-opening data point from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) underscores the importance of having Narcan widely available: "Nearly 40% of opioid and stimulant overdose deaths occurred while a bystander was present."
Sadly, many overdoses and deaths occur in public places, particularly with homelessness often compounding opioid addiction. Empowering public employees to swiftly aid a member of the public just makes sense. This innovative leadership from Hennepin and Crow Wing counties deserves Minnesotans' applause and emulation.