Amid rise in opioid deaths, Shelburne Falls program teaches overdose response methods

  • Mike Garafalo, director of operations for Better Life Partners, leads a presentation about drug abuse at the Arms Library in Shelburne Falls on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

  • Maureen O’Reilly, health educator with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and Arms Library Director Laurie Wheeler during a program about drug abuse at the Shelburne Falls library on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2022 6:36:16 PM
Modified: 9/21/2022 6:35:37 PM

SHELBURNE FALLS — With the rates of fatal opioid overdoses on the rise across the country, community members learned what to do in the event of an overdose during a program offered at the Arms Library on Tuesday.

The presentation, which was provided in partnership with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), was led by Mike Garafalo, director of operations for Better Life Partners. The organization aims to provide evidence-based care to anyone in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine or Vermont who is struggling with substance use addiction.

Those gathered at the library learned how to administer naloxone (commonly known by the brand name Narcan), a nasal spray prescription medicine used to reverse opioid overdoses.

Garafalo explained Better Life Partners uses a practice called harm reduction — a set of practical strategies to reduce negative consequences. He compared this to wearing a seat belt while driving. In the case of drug use, harm reduction often takes the form of needle exchanges, safe consumption sites and expanding the availability of Narcan.

Harm reduction, he said, acknowledges that simply telling people not to use drugs will not work, so this practice looks to increase drug use safety while sharing addiction treatment resources. Tapestry Health, which serves all four counties in western Massachusetts, provides a needle exchange program.

Overdoses can happen anywhere, though bathrooms in restaurants and cafes are among the most common places. For this reason, FRCOG Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker said food service staff often receive Narcan training.

A person being slumped over and non-responsive is a key sign of an overdose. Garafalo advises to ask, loudly, if the person is OK and if they have used drugs, and tell them you’ll be calling 911.

After calling 911, lay the person down and perform a sternal rub. This technique involves rubbing the knuckles of a closed fist firmly and vigorously on a person’s sternum.

Then administer Narcan. This is done by removing the packaging, placing the tube inside a person’s nostril and pressing the button on the bottom of the device. This can be remembered by the “three Ps” — peel, place and press.

Wait two to three minutes in between doses of Narcan, Garafalo advised. While waiting, administer CPR if the person is unresponsive.

Garafalo explained it is important to act quickly, as six minutes without air flowing to one’s brain can cause irreversible brain damage.

“More people in our region fatally overdosed last year than in any previous year, and it is so important that all of us learn how we can support people suffering from opioid use disorder,” Walker said.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in May, 2021 marked the worst year ever for fatal opioid overdoses recorded, with more than 107,000 deaths across the country and 2,500 deaths in the state of Massachusetts.

Franklin County and Athol were not spared the brunt of it, as 44 people in the region experienced unintentional fatal overdoses in 2021, a 52% increase from 2020 and a 132% increase from 2019, according to the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office. Data from the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region shows non-fatal overdoses have also increased, with nearly 280 non-fatal overdoses in 2020 compared to 209 in 2019.

While dealing with an overdose, it is important to remember the Good Samaritan Law, which outlines that a person cannot be sued for helping someone who has overdosed, and cannot be charged for being around the drugs used that caused the overdose.

Garafalo said the goal for many drug abuse treatment programs is abstinence, but any steps along the way are also a success.

“Any step toward decreased risk is a step in the right direction,” Garafalo said.

“We should do anything we can to help save someone’s life,” he said. “Anyone can be struggling with addiction, and they should be loved and cared for.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.


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