VIEWPOINT: Libraries equip with naloxone kits could save lives

By Matt Yuyitung

It’s an initiative being taken across the country: giving employees at public libraries naloxone kits and training to prevent overdose deaths among patrons.

In Alberta’s public library branches, Calgary has security guards equipped with the life-saving kits and Edmonton’s will be trained soon. Toronto’s libraries provided voluntary training to use the antidote. And in Vancouver, despite regulations against it, library employees have prevented tragedy by using naloxone to halt overdoses.

The country is starting to see more and more public library workers trained in administering naloxone, the medication used to counteract opioid overdoses. The Ottawa Public Library is looking to join other cities in equipping their employees with naloxone, and this is an opportunity the city department should fully embrace to help curb the tragic effects of opioid overdose.

Libraries are public spaces. They are often frequented by homeless people and other vulnerable citizens, a segment of the population at increased risk of drug addiction and abuse. Having library employees who are trained not only in recognizing the signs of an overdose but in administering naloxone will save lives. It’s that simple.

Such public spaces often have defibrillators on-site, and employees will often be required to complete first-aid and CPR training. Aren’t there similar arguments to be had for making naloxone part of the emergency toolkit?

Not so fast, says Sandra Singh, the outgoing chief librarian of the Vancouver Public Library.

In a recent memo, she stated that while she supported the “humanitarian values” that prompted staff members to want to help out those in need, she argued that the low rate of incidents at public libraries — as well as potential risks associated with aiding an overdosing victim — made a policy change mandating naloxone use impractical. The policy has since been changed, allowing employees to intervene — but only after library officials faced a backlash for their initial decision.

Possible exposure to opioids, potentially aggressive victims, the risk of harm from needles and other drug paraphernalia — according to Singh, these factors mean library employees should not intervene beyond calling 911.

I disagree, and I give credit to the Vancouver Public Library for making the policy change. According to Ottawa Public Health, in this city in 2015, nearly two-thirds of drug-related deaths were because of opioids, there were nearly 2,000 drug-related emergency room visits, and there were over 70,000 people with prescriptions for opioids.

There’s an urgent need for people in certain places to not only be aware of the risks of opioid usage, but also to know how to respond in the event of an overdose. This is especially true in public spaces such as libraries, even more so in downtown locations — such as the Main branch on Metcalfe Street — where there will be a greater need for effective emergency responders due to a higher concentration of vulnerable people.

The risk of a fentanyl overdose is extremely high, especially when the tiniest amount of the drug is enough to end a life.

For a model, look to the Camrose Public Library in Alberta, which earlier this year began to equip branches with naloxone kits and train staff to use it.

“We’re part of the community and part of our job is to make sure the community is safe. We just wanted to make sure we have the complete first aid response,” library director Deb Cryderman told CBC Radio.

With overdose rates climbing in the province, the need for people to play a role in ensuring community safety is more important than ever. It’s something people should realize across the country as we struggle to face the ongoing opioid crisis, and we should take every opportunity we can to ensure that the problem is tackled head-on.