Proactive step aims to protect students and save lives
OLYMPIA – Opioid-related drug overdose deaths in Washington have risen dramatically, particularly among young people. Rates of opioid-related fatalities among adolescents aged 14-18 have surged almost threefold from 3.6 per 100,000 individuals in 2016 to 10.6 per 100,000 individuals in 2022. This increase is largely attributed to the increase of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, in the illegal drug supply.
In response to the urgency of the situation, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) is offering all public high schools across the state naloxone. Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is a safe and effective medicine that can reverse the harmful effects of an opioid overdose, including one caused by fentanyl. Naloxone is available in a nasal spray that can be given to anyone, any age, during a suspected opioid overdose and has no harmful effects even if opioids are not present in the system.
DOH is partnering with Educational Service Districts to offer all public comprehensive and alternative high schools two kits of intranasal naloxone. This offer from DOH is voluntary and supports the Washington law requiring school districts with 2,000 students or more to stock at least one set of opioid overdose reversal medication in each high school. Smaller school districts may also choose to obtain and maintain naloxone in their schools.
“Equipping Washington high schools with naloxone is a commonsense strategy to protect our students from opioid overdose,” said Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, MD, MPH, Chief Science Officer and board-certified pediatrician. “Some kids experiment with substances, unaware that just one counterfeit pill can contain enough fentanyl to be fatal. Providing access to naloxone will not only save lives, but also send a powerful message that we care about the health of our youth.”
DOH works with K-12 schools and partners throughout Washington to make learning spaces healthier and safe. While overdoses are rare at schools, staff should be prepared to recognize and respond to them the way they do for other medical emergencies. This initiative aligns with a recent letter from the U.S. Department of Education and the White House drug policy office urging schools to keep naloxone on hand and train staff and students on its use. It also advances Gov. Jay Inslee’s school-based support priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
Individuals and families can purchase naloxone over the counter or obtain it from a pharmacy using the statewide standing order, which acts like a prescription for anyone in the state at risk of witnessing or experiencing opioid overdose.
Information on how to prevent and respond to drug overdoses can be found on the DOH website, including links to resources on how to talk with teens about fentanyl. The “Prevent Overdose WA” campaign informs Washingtonians about the risks of opioids and fentanyl and the power of naloxone to reverse overdoses. In addition, DOH’s Opioid and Drug Overdose Data and Unintentional Drug Overdose Data dashboards provide useful insights for addressing substance use in the state.