Western Pa. school districts stock naloxone in nurse's offices
A law enabling emergency responders to carry drug overdose reversal medications has inspired another group of first responders to arm themselves with the life-saving remedy: school nurses.
School districts around the region have begun debating and adopting policies that put naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, in nurses' offices. Many are training nurses, school administrators and security guards in the administration of the antidote.
“If you have the ability to be proactive and preventative, why not do that?” said Janet Sardon, superintendent of Yough School District.
The district was the first in the state to seek the use of naloxone and prompted Gov. Tom Wolf's administration to write to all 500 districts statewide to inform them they could legally stock the drug and encourage them to do so.
“By allowing the trained medical professionals at our schools to be equipped with this critical tool, we will effectively give overdosing individuals a second chance at life, a chance that was not previously made available to them in all cases,” said Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.
A deadly issue
Sardon said the drug could be critical for saving someone in her widespread, rural district while emergency responders are en route.
“When you look at the statistics in Westmoreland County and the overdoses and issues surrounding drugs and alcohol, we have issues, not necessarily just within the schools, but in the community as well,” Sardon said.
The Westmoreland County coroner's office anticipates final records will show 125 overdose deaths last year, a 44 percent spike over the previous record of 87 in 2014.
Allegheny County had 304 fatal overdoses through Dec. 1, according to the medical examiner's office. Officials have not finalized the tally for 2015, but it is expected to top the 307 overdose deaths in 2014.
“I think it's a matter of not putting your head in the sand and ignoring the fact that it's out there,” said Mt. Pleasant Area School District Superintendent Timothy Gabauer. “It doesn't show in our minds that there's an issue here in our schools ... but it's a reality in society and a reality in the community.”
Mt. Pleasant Area is in the process of approving a naloxone policy, which Gabauer said would likely be voted on in February or March.
Tim Phillips, director of Community Prevention Services of Westmoreland, said he's been ramping up efforts to get naloxone into the hands of as many people as possible.
“School districts ... realize they may have some students at risk, so I think they're willing to be more proactive,” Phillips said. “I think every school should be on board and equipped with this. It's an issue of public safety at this point.”
Phillips presented information to Norwin School District officials last week. The district is expected to vote on a policy detailing naloxone administration at its school board meeting next week.
Officials at Burrell and Allegheny Valley school districts said the idea is under consideration.
But not all districts are making the move to stock naloxone.
Minimal training required
Ebony Pugh, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the district that covers 24,650 students, will not stock the drug in its 53 schools. She said the district's health team plans to continue discussions on the idea, but officials have concerns about ensuring that those authorized to administer the antidote are adequately trained.
Phillips countered: “I could give you the training in 40 minutes, if that.”
Naloxone can be given as a nasal mist or an injection. Some injectors are automated and talk the user through the process, he said.
Officials stress that the inclusion of naloxone is a preventative measure and not motivated by instances of student overdoses.
“We thought of it very much like an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) — it's in the building in case anybody in the building has a heart attack,” said Ringgold School District Superintendent Karen Polkabla.
Ringgold stocks naloxone in the nurses' offices of all buildings and has trained its dedicated school district police force in how to administer it, Polkabla said.
School officials said the overdose antidotes aren't necessarily just for students. School buildings are used for sporting events, concerts and other events that draw members of the community.
“Believe me, I hope we never use it,” Polkabla said. “I hope we never use the AED either, but it's there in case it would be needed.”
Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724- 850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.