Overdose Awareness Day is a deeply meaningful, even sacred annual day of remembrance for many people working in harm reduction as well as people who use drugs, people in recovery, and their loved ones. Sadly, in 2020 the number of fatal overdoses in the United States rose by 30% in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching a total of 93,331 lives lost. These are the people we mourn today, and this is the reason Prevention Point Philadelphia continues to provide and advocate for legal harm reduction programs in our city.
Shawn Westfahl, Overdose Prevention Specialist, is always on his feet, speaking with participants about preventative measures to help them stay safer and healthier if they use illicit drugs. But when asked about Overdose Awareness Day, he takes a beat. “For me personally it is a day of reflection on all those we’ve lost to fatal overdoses. It’s also a time to reflect within our community about those in recovery who have been saved by Narcan.”
Rosalind (“Roz”) Pichardo is the Education Lead for our Community Engagement and Volunteer Services program. According to her records she has reversed nearly 800 overdoses over the years, most of them in Kensington, where she was born and raised.
“For me, Overdose Awareness Day is about bringing awareness to those who don’t know about addiction,” Roz says. “But it’s also to memorialize those that we’ve lost to addiction unnecessarily. Preventable deaths that could’ve been spared if people were educated and willing to carry Narcan.”
Prevention Point staff like Shawn and Roz ensured that our organization was able to distribute 20,648 doses of Narcan in Kensington and across Philadelphia in FY2021. According to Overdose Prevention Coordinator Mary Craighead, despite the fact that Kensington still has the highest volume of fatal overdoses per year, the neighborhood actually saw a decrease of 22% between 2019 and 2020.
"I can’t stress its importance enough. If somebody stopped breathing, we gotta breathe for them."
“This decrease is a testament to the efficacy of equipping community members with the tools that they need, like Narcan, to keep each other safe,” Mary says, pointing to a Philadelphia Department of Public Health CHART report.
We know through our work on the ground and statistics like the one above that Narcan is crucial in fighting the overdose epidemic. In fact, the medication naloxone is sometimes referred to as a “miracle drug” or “The Lazarus drug.” However, of equal importance is the rescue breaths that a first responder must administer after giving the medication.
“Since COVID, a lot of people have been more scared or hesitant to do rescue breathing on a person if they’re not breathing. I can’t stress its importance enough. If somebody stopped breathing, we gotta breathe for them,” says Shawn. “If you come upon somebody that isn’t breathing, you can use your surgical mask or N95 as a form of PPE while administering rescue breathing.” Like any form of PPE, masks are not foolproof in preventing COVID-19, and Mary says that it is up to each individual to weigh the risk for themselves after they administer Narcan.
"I know what it is to lose someone."
Shawn also mentions that Prevention Point staff have used Bag Valve Masks (BVM’s) as a way to provide rescue breathing while staying safe. Roz adds, “I know what it is to lose someone, and I certainly don’t want to have someone mourn the loss of a loved one because the first responder was afraid to provide rescue breaths.”
On Overdose Awareness Day 2021, we remember with love our family, friends, colleagues and participants who have passed away from tragically preventable deaths. And, despite the hardships posed by the pandemic, we recommit to reducing the fatal overdose rate and to ensuring that all Philadelphians have access to the tools and education they need to keep themselves and others alive and safe.