Can free needles and ambulance rides to rehab make a difference in North Carolina’s opioid epidemic? Emergency room visits for drug abuse and mental health issues have spiked in recent years. A new program starting this summer in Orange County hopes to help patients before they end up in the emergency room.


We’ve written about the opioid epidemic numerous times before. North Carolina has taken strides to combat the problem at the legislative level, but new Orange County EMS programs are fighting the problem on the ground. Emergency first responders are used to saving patients. When they meet with a patient who is overdosing with a needle in their arm, their goal is to keep them alive and stable. But patients usually end up walking out of the hospital after stabilizing – and the issues that brought them there are not addressed.

The News & Observer shares:

“Emergency departments don't have the resources to help patients once they've addressed the immediate health issue, whether it's an addict or someone with mental illness, said Joseph Grover, EMS medical director and a member of UNC's Department of Emergency Medicine faculty.

‘Traditionally, our main role in the emergency department has only been to triage,’ Grover said. ‘We triage those patients who need emergency admission to a psychiatric institution. For those who do not, we are pretty much left to discharge them and hope for the best that they are going to end up with the right resource.’”

Emergency centers lack the extended resources needed to address addiction and mental health, even though more patients are visiting the emergency room for these issues. The statistics are pretty rough. The News & Observer shared these startling numbers:

  • A 2013 N.C. Department of Health and Human Services report that showed emergency rooms saw 17,000 more visits for mental health issues in 2012 than in 2010.

  • North Carolina is among 10 states with significant increases in opioid-related emergency room visits from July 2016 to September 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • A February 2018 state report shows the number of visits for opioid overdoses spiked last year to 5,746 from an average of 4,000 in the three prior years.

  • There were 437 emergency department visits in January 2018 compared with 385 in January 2017.

Starting this month, there is another option for patients. The News & Observer reports that Orange County EMS crews can take patients directly to the Freedom House Recovery Center in Chapel Hill for an evaluation, as well as for potential treatment and support. Protocols are in place for EMS crews:

“Deciding where to take a patient will follow a strict protocol, beginning with a paramedic's evaluation. Patients must meet specific standards, including being over 18, having no major health issues requiring immediate attention, and having no intentional overdose history, or suicidal or homicidal ideas.”

Last month, EMS crews began offering clean needles to overdose patients, as well as naloxone and information on treatment options. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), naloxone is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose. The NIH explains how it works to aid an overdose:

“It is an opioid antagonist—meaning that it binds to opioid receptors and can reverse and block the effects of other opioids. It can very quickly restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing with heroin or prescription opioid pain medications.”

Orange County EMS crews will be demonstrating how to give naloxone to users and overdosing patients, so that friends and family members can step in if need be. Experts caution that naloxone is less effective when fighting synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and it may take a professional EMS responder to administer enough of a dosage. The clean needles and naloxone are steps to stop the spread of diseases and keep patients alive to make it to treatment.

For more information on the Orange County programs, visit The News & Observer.

Will clean needles, medication, and information be enough? Will an ambulance ride to a rehab facility make a difference? Let us know in the comments or share your thoughts on our Facebook page.

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