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Restaurants join the effort to reduce opioid overdoses by carrying Narcan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Local health departments have been trying to make Narcan, the naloxone nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses, more accessible to the public. In some jurisdictions, officials are bringing the antidote to restaurants. NPR member station WAMU's Sara Y. Kim reports from Alexandria, Va.

SARAH Y KIM, BYLINE: I'm at Virtue Feed and Grain, a restaurant by Alexandria's old town waterfront. The staff just got Narcan trained as part of a voluntary program by the local health department. The restaurant's manager, Marie Ackerman, is impressed by how simple Narcan is. She thought it would be something more daunting, like a needle, but it's just a nasal spray with no negative side effects. And in Alexandria, it's free.

MARIE ACKERMAN: I think anybody can do it. I think even a child could do it.

KIM: Ackerman says she's getting trained to save lives. Her husband is a priest. He's performed funerals for overdose victims. Some of them were very young. And years ago, a patron suffered an overdose at a restaurant she was working at.

ACKERMAN: And that was very concerning and very scary.

KIM: Narcan has become more accessible this year. It's starting to be available over the counter. But Amanda Coletti, a Narcan trainer with the Alexandria Health Department, says some restaurant owners are still hesitant.

AMANDA COLETTI: We ask them if they know what Narcan is, and typically they say no. And then when I explain it is - one, they're kind of hesitant because then they realize, oh, this is a drug for opioids. And that's where the whole stigma plays into it.

SAFWAAN ISLAM: Test your own drugs if needed.

KIM: It's clear that the staff at Virtue Feet and Grain aren't used to talking about this issue. It feels a bit like a sex ed conversation. One of the employees asks the trainers how to get Narcan. He then asks about fentanyl test strips, which are used to test drugs for the presence of fentanyl. Some of his coworkers start laughing. Coletti's co-trainer Safwaan Islam jumps to his defense.

(LAUGHTER)

ISLAM: No, these are great questions. And, guys, do not laugh at him. This is the whole issue we're trying to break down - is we want people to be encouraged to reduce harm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

ISLAM: Right?

KIM: For the workers, it's a lighthearted moment, but it reflects an attitude that Coletti and Islam want to challenge.

COLETTI: It is good to laugh, and I know they're friends. But also, that's part of the whole stigma - is, you know, we don't want people to have to just laugh at it. We want them to also take it seriously and know. You know, the gentleman had asked a really good question, and I'm glad we were able to answer it for him.

KIM: Coletti says overcoming that stigma is key to fighting the opioid crisis. The Alexandria Health Department is aiming to get a quarter of the city's restaurants, bars and cafes trained by the end of this year. Islam says 50% will probably be the next benchmark.

ISLAM: Even if it saves one life, even if it saves a hundred lives, it's doing its job.

KIM: In Delaware, restaurants began Narcan training last year under a program by the state health department. Carrie Leishman, the president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurants Association, says restaurants make sense as a training ground. They're a place of gathering.

CARRIE LEISHMAN: Restaurants are natural community leaders, and they want to do for their community. It's part of the DNA of who restaurants are.

KIM: But Leishman says restaurant managers can do more than stock up on Narcan. They can connect staff to care. At the root of the opioid crisis is a mental health crisis, and she says restaurants need human resources.

LEISHMAN: Narcan is just part of it. It's sort of the last resort.

KIM: Mariah Francis is with the National Harm Reduction Coalition. Francis is thrilled to see restaurants embracing these programs, which they call humanizing.

MARIAH FRANCIS: We are concerned not with condoning drug use or condemning drug use but providing a safety mechanism that saves someone's life.

KIM: In 2022, the U.S. hit a new, grim record. One hundred and nine thousand, six hundred eighty people died of a drug-related overdose. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Y. Kim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Y Kim WAMU/DCist