UNION, NJ — Schools around the county are carrying doses of a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose since teen deaths from drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers have seen a spike in recent years.
Nurses at the middle and high schools in Westfield have been carrying Narcan, a brand name version of the drug naloxone, for about two years.
Two nurses at Hillside High School have also carried Narcan for about a year.
“Our high school nurses also attended an opioid conference sponsored by Horizon NJ Health and Monmouth University in October,” Hillside Superintendent Antoine Gayles said in a recent statement. “The procedure for administering Narcan was developed by our high school nurses and our school physician.”
Neither school district has had to administer the overdose-reversing drug, school officials from Westfield and Hillside told LocalSource.
“The schools decided to carry naloxone in response to the communitywide opioid crisis,” Cindy Minicucci, an assistant to the Westfield superintendent, said in an email. “No students have overdosed in school. This is pre-emptive.”
Narcan, commonly used as a nasal spray, reverses the effects of respiratory depression that occur during an overdose.
It can be bought over the counter in New Jersey in most cases, ever since legislation passed in 2017 allowed for a statewide standing order from the state Department of Health for the overdose “antidote.”
In 2015, the latest year data is available from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 19 percent increase in drug overdose deaths in teens aged 15 to 19. Those statistics have dipped and increased over the years. From 1999 to 2007, the death rate from drug overdoses in the same age group more than doubled. However, the death rate declined by 26 percent from 2007 to 2014 for 15- to 19-year-olds, the CDC study found.
Heroin — not synthetic opioids such as fentanyl — was the largest driver of overdose death rates among teens, the study said.
Prevention Links CEO Pamela Capaci, whose nonprofit organization created the Raymond J. Lesniak Recovery High School in Roselle, said she has seen how heroin addiction starts in teens.
It usually begins with painkiller prescriptions that teens receive from a doctor after an injury, in many cases, related to sports.
Once their prescriptions run out, it’s easier to acquire heroin on the street, Capaci said.
“Painkillers are much more expensive than heroin,” she said. They just can’t financially sustain — especially when they’re younger — a $40 or $50 pill.”
Paul Lavella, a counselor and director of alumni services at Summit Behavioral Health, said parents or guardians may see a reduction in extracurricular activities or an increase in absenteeism if their teen is using drugs. He said the best way to handle a teen’s addiction is by “addressing it head on.”
“I know sometimes talking about substance abuse and addiction can be very very difficult for (parents) to accept themselves,” Lavella said in a phone interview.
A teen may participate in a Core TEAM meeting in school, which may refer a teen suspected of drug or alcohol issues to supportive services, Lavella said. Assessments through other programs outside of school can also be made.
“Assessments are the most effective way to determine the extent of anyone’s substance use,” Lavella said in a statement. “In Union County, there are multiple treatment facilities, including Summit Behavioral Health and Serenity at Summit, that provide assessments. Many of these programs would work with a family’s insurance provider to determine the cost of the assessment, if any.”
In 2016, the state Department of Education issued a memo to school districts giving guidance about how to implement Narcan policies. The department has also provided school districts with information about how to receive Narcan for free from Adapt Pharma, which produces Narcan.
Several school districts throughout Union County have also begun carrying Narcan, Lavella said.
About 30 employees in the Union School district received free Narcan kits and training through JSAS HealthCare Inc. in Neptune last year, according to Jill Hall, the district’s student assistance coordinator.
“That’s what they say in the training: you hope you never have to use it,” Hall said, adding that Narcan has not been used at Union High School.
Adapt Pharma has also started donating the life-saving drug to universities and colleges around the country. The Westfield School District received Narcan under Adapt Pharma’s program, and previously from an anonymous donor, the superintendent’s assistant said. The Hillside School District obtained its two doses of Narcan from the Union County School Nurses Association, which also provided training in its administration, Gayles said.
In some cases, more than one dose of Narcan is needed to reverse the effects of the overdose, Lavella said.
Emergency medical care should be given to anyone suspected of having an overdose, even if the antidote is administered.
Narcan can be bought at a pharmacy without receiving any training in administering it. But Capaci, of Prevention Links, said it’s recommended that those who purchase Narcan take her nonprofit organization’s free quarterly training sessions.
Prevention Links’ next training session will be available in March, Capaci said. For more information, visit preventionlinks.org.