Nurses Combating Opioids

More than 77,000 people have died from opioid overdoses in the United States in 2019, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the end of September.

It’s a statistic that hits home for Cathy Fox.

A nurse for 34 years, mostly in the emergency department, Fox is now a quality safety nurse at the U.S. Department of Defense. In her session at Emergency Nursing 2019 last week, “Opioid Epidemic Spiraling Out of Control — How to Keep You and Your Staff Safe,” she showed a video about a girl named Amy, who was addicted to opioids at age 15 after doctors continued to prescribe them after a high school sports injury. The video showed Amy intentionally crashing her car in an effort to get sent back to an ED — for more opioids.

Amy got through her accident and her addiction. Fox said she is now healthy and working.

But Amy’s story is becoming all too familiar for many young people in the United States.

Opioid overdose, said Fox, is now the most common cause of death for young people — even over motor vehicle crashes — and has been for four years.

An indisputable national epidemic, opioids are killing five to six people per hour in the United States. West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio have had so many deaths from opioids that morgues are full, forcing them to use freezer trucks to hold bodies, according to Fox.

Health care professionals have a battle to fight, and Fox wants to make sure they have access to the tools to do it.

Learning how to administer naloxone HCl properly, she said, is a start. Naloxone, knowns commercially as Narcan Nasal Spray, is a drug that can treat an overdose in an emergency. But many nurses are confused by the directions and accidentally inject themselves, Fox said. It’s a tool that can be instrumental in saving a life and is available at many local drug stores and the DOD.

Fox’s other recommendations include “safe-proofing” nurses’ homes for opioids, particularly because people know they work in the health care profession; disposing of narcotics properly; and knowing the signs of narcotic abuse.

Fox also cautioned attendees about a new drug, carfentanil, which is available for purchase online from China. Because carfentanil is lethal in extremely small doses, and the powder can be hard to see, nurses who retrieve people from cars in the ED must follow new CDC guidelines for removing patients from private vehicles to ensure they’re not unduly exposed to the drug. The guidelines include wearing a full gown, two pairs of nitrite gloves, protective eyewear and a mask.