NARCAN saves lives as opioid overdoses rise in Kearney area | local news


KEARNEY — While COVID made headlines for the past two years, another health plague quietly nibbled at the margins: opioids.

Opioid overdoses are on the rise in the Kearney area and beyond. Overdoses have doubled nationwide in the last four years, according to Hailey Jelinek, health educator at Two Rivers Public Health Department.

“Unfortunately, the opioid epidemic has increased in Nebraska, as it has throughout the county,” said Matthew Walter, EMS manager at CHI Health Good Samaritan. “Over the past several years, our emergency services here at Good Sam have seen an increase in the overall number of overdose calls.”

In 2019, EMS responded to 65 overdose calls. That rose to 90 calls in 2020 and 103 calls in 2021. Because of this, Good Sam ambulances are now carrying more NARCAN than they used to because some of the drugs they encounter are potent, Walter said.

NARCAN nasal spray, also known as naloxone, can reverse opioid overdose symptoms. Its use here reflects the rise in overdoses. Good Sam EMTs administered it 11 times in 2019, 16 times in 2020, and 22 times in 2021.

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Chris Watts, pharmacist and co-owner of Valley Pharmacy, owns NARCAN, a nasal spray that can quickly reverse an opioid overdose. Most Nebraska residents can get it for free at select pharmacies after answering a few simple questions.

Ana Salazar, Kearney Hub

Opioids are used to relieve pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids include heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, as well as prescription pain relievers, including codeine, morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone (Vicodin).

According to NIDA, opioids are generally safe when taken with a doctor’s prescription, but in addition to providing pain relief, they also produce euphoria, which often leads to overdose and abuse. Regular use on prescription can also lead to dependency. When misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to addiction, overdose incidents, and death.

Here in Nebraska, that abuse is increasing. “From 2018-21, overdoses increased by 20 (percent) to 35 percent,” Jelinek said. Their numbers come from a three-year surveillance report based on records submitted to the Nebraska Ambulance Rescue Service’s electronic information systems.

NARCAN is a nasal spray (naloxone) that can be used to prevent emergency death from an opioid overdose. NARCAN can be given anywhere, Jelinek said. It is needle free. Inhalation is not necessary and requires no special training.

It is offered to the public for free through a state program called Nebraska Safe Prescribe, which aims to educate doctors about prescribing certain medications. The NSP website states: “Opioid addiction is not a weakness. It’s a disease.”

About a year ago, the state authorized all state pharmacies to offer NARCAN. Valley Pharmacy at 211 W. 33rd St. and U-Save Pharmacy at 3611 Second Ave. applied for this opportunity. It is now available for free and without a prescription to almost anyone who wants it.

Eric Hamik, pharmacy director at U-Save, said any Nebraska resident can stop by, answer five informational questions, and receive NARCAN for free. “If they meet the criteria, they can get it, but we didn’t spend a large sum,” he said.

Eric Hamik

Eric Hamik

Chris Watts, co-owner and pharmacist at Valley Pharmacy, echoed that. Watts asks people if they are allergic to its key ingredients, including naloxone hydrochloride, and if any family member is at risk of an overdose.

In addition, “everyone who needs it qualifies. Our goal is to place it in places where people at risk of overdose can have it available. People don’t come in and say they’re using illegal drugs, but they might say they need them for their neighbor. That’s fine,” Watts said.

Hamik, who has also worked with Nebraska Safe Prescribe, said NARCAN used to cost $150 for a can or two, so few people bought it. “That was a big barrier between people’s insurance co-payments and deductibles,” he said. Now its free status makes it much more accessible.

Jelink noted that opioids are extremely addictive. Anyone can develop in addition to opioids. A person in pain after surgery or an accident may not remember when they last took their medication and may unknowingly take too much.

Dangers also lurk beyond recipes. Jelinek watched a video of drug users unknowingly buying drugs laced with fentanyl, which is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine and can be deadly. A person can overdose on one grain of fentanyl.

Counterfeit pills are particularly dangerous. “People think they’re getting opioids from a doctor, but fake pills are huge,” she said. “They are so addictive.”

Signs of an opioid overdose are blue lips, skin, or fingernails; pinpoint pupils in the eyes; choking noises or snorts like gargling; slow or irregular gentle breathing; slow heartbeat, low blood pressure, and no response to voice or touch.


NARCAN Nasal Spray or Naxolone can instantly reverse an opioid overdose. It’s designed for first responders and family, friends and caregivers, with no medical training required.


Jelink said a person who finds someone who has overdosed should call 911 immediately, “but hopefully they have NARCAN nearby.” I wish that people whose relatives have addiction problems are prepared for this. It is readily available. Just go in and get it. Simply having is the best way to start,” said Jelinek.

“No one ever says, ‘I’m going to overdose today,'” she said. “Having NARCAN is just a smart thing. If I’ve just had surgery or someone I love has had surgery and is on narcotics, NARCAN is the place to be. I wish everyone had the spare change to go get it.”

Anyone taking prescribed opioids is at risk of opioid overdose, Hamik said. “Even for a household with a cancer patient, there is always a risk. A person could accidentally take more of a prescribed opioid than they should, or take another drug with them. A child could also be given an opioid,” he said.

Watts added, “We want as many people as possible to have NARCAN in their homes. We’re not saying everyone abuses drugs, but what if a child got caught on a prescription drug, for example?”

Jelinek said some states automatically give NARCAN to anyone filling an opioid prescription, but Nebraska doesn’t do that. However, anyone can walk into a U-Save or Valley pharmacy and say, for example, that a roommate has an addiction, fill out the form, and receive free NARCAN.

“Or you say your mother moved in with you and tends to take two pills when only one is prescribed. Or say your son takes opioids. You tell the pharmacist you want NARCAN on hand and you will get it,” Jelinek said.

Jelinek added that law enforcement officers and state park rangers are now all wearing NARCAN.

She is working hard to get more pharmacies in the area enrolled in NARCAN. In the surrounding counties there is Mark’s U-Save in Callaway as well as Feral’s Pharmacy in McCook.

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As a health educator, Jelinek takes part in training courses and webinars. She keeps behavioral health issues in check, attends state meetings and leads focus groups with law enforcement “and what they’re seeing in our seven counties.”

She has completed a contingency plan detailing the services available for opioid prevention, which will be sent to all emergency departments in the seven Two Rives boroughs.

She is also the coordinator of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Two Rivers grant for Overdose Data to Action, which helps provide detailed data on drug overdoses and uses that data to educate the public and prevent overdoses.

She has invited people from the coroner’s office to speak about the opioid crisis and what autopsies of overdose victims reveal. “We even had a child die. It was unfortunate but true,” she said.

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