Houston Health Department

Preventing opioid overdose deaths during a pandemic

August 31, 2020

HOUSTON — Houstonians are facing the collision of two health emergencies: the COVID-19 pandemic and worsening opioid addiction. Houston first responders report a 17% increase in overdoses in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same time period last year. As we recognize September as National Recovery Month, the Houston Health Department and its partners continue to be on the forefront battling both health emergencies.

“Even as COVID-19 is the health crisis at the top of our minds, we must remember the opioid crisis is not under control," said Dr. David Persse, Local Health Authority for the Houston Health Department. “We must focus on making it easier for people to get the help they need and get it as quickly as possible.”

The FRONTLINES (First Responder Opioid Overdose Naloxone Training and Linkage into Needed Evidence-based treatment Services) grant program puts the life-saving drug naloxone in the hands of first responders, those who can administer it quickly and effectively. The drug restores normal respiration in people actively suffering from a heroin or prescription opioid overdose.

Through the program, the Houston Fire Department was trained on how and when to use Narcan, the nasal spray form of naloxone. In 2019, Narcan was used more than 1,300 times by Houston first responders. So far in 2020, it’s been used more than 1,000 times.

“Now, more than ever, the entire Houston community needs to be aware that opioid misuse is a growing problem that could touch the lives of anyone including their own,” said Dr. Persse, who is also the principal investigator of the FRONTLINES project. “Since people with opioid use disorder are disproportionately affected by the ongoing health and societal consequences associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we all need to be ready to react quickly to save lives.”

Rising unemployment and worsening mental health symptoms cause higher stress levels which may increase the abuse of substance like alcohol and illicit opioids, increasing the risk for opioid-related overdose. 

Even people currently working on their sobriety can be affected by the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The anxiety, pain, isolation, financial worries, changes at home and work, and a constant feeling of uncertainty are powerful relapse triggers for people in recovery. The local treatment community reports seeing increasing rates of relapse in recent months.

These factors are why the Houston Health Department and its partners are increasing overdose prevention services during the pandemic including quick access to naloxone, overdose prevention education, and post-overdose recovery through Houston Recover Center programs.

In addition to the Houston Recovery Center, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas at San Antonio are partners on the FRONTLINES grant.

For more information or to schedule an opioid overdose training for a community group or organization contact Dr. Alicia Kowalchuk at aliciak@bcm.edu. More information and linkage to substance abuse disorder treatment services are available by contacting the Houston Recovery Center Clinical Office at 713-238-7803.

Naloxone is available by standing order across all pharmacies in the state of Texas, no separate prescription needed.  Ask for it at your local pharmacy.  You can legally possess and administer naloxone in Texas if you are personally at risk of opioid overdose or know someone who is.