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County detention center installs free Narcan vending machine, combats drug overdose

Narcan, distributed through a free vending machine in Orange County Detention Center, is used to reverse an opioid overdose.

Orange County residents struggling with substance abuse can now access naloxone, which reverses opioid overdose, for free from a vending machine located at the county’s Detention Center. 

The Orange County Detention Center is located at 1200 US-70 W in Hillsborough.

Seven counties have adopted naloxone vending machines in their detention centers. These machines hold Narcan kits — Narcan being a brand name for naloxone — which reverse opioid overdoses by slowing rapid breathing. This provides time for emergency responders to administer medical treatment.

The Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative grant funded the free administration of vending machines in North Carolina detention centers, as well as centers in other states. The National Center for State Courts served as the director for the RJOI.  

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition also collaborated with the organizations and communities by identifying and connecting local agencies with each other to install the machines. 

According to recent studies from the American Public Health Association, those previously incarcerated are 40 times more likely to die from an opioid overdose within two weeks of release. 

The NCSC pushed for vending machines to be installed in detention centers to target vulnerable post-incarceration individuals, NCSC Consultant Tara Blair said.

“Getting this life-saving medication into the hands of the people and the families of the people that are incarcerated and being released from jail was very important,” she said. 

In 2021, 3,759 people died from opioid overdoses in North Carolina — 29 were from Orange County. During this time, Narcan kits reversed 4,154 overdoses, according to an Orange County press release. 

Orange County Board of County Commissioners chair Renée Price said Narcan accessibility is necessary following the COVID-19 pandemic. Price added that overdose cases have increased as individuals look for ways to cope with post-COVID-19 difficulties.

“People have been in isolation, quarantined, losing income, losing loved ones – it's been a very difficult time,” she said. “People have different ways of trying to cope, and certainly, COVID has had an impact.”

Low-income, LGBTQ+ and Black, Indigenous, People of Color are disproportionately affected by fatal substance abuse, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the NCHRC and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, respectively. 

Price, who has engaged with the opioid epidemic locally, said she had found these groups to be at risk for overdose as they turn to substances to manage their respective traumas.  

“We think Orange County is an affluent community, but we have people that are struggling, income-wise, and people that are just mentally or spiritually struggling as well,” she said. “We've got BIPOC communities that are trying to deal with racism, then we have the LGBTQ+ community trying to be understood and accepted, and that's very difficult.”

Although fatal drug use heavily impacts these communities, Melissia Larson, a law enforcement program manager at the NCHRC, said the accessibility of naloxone vending machines can reduce the impact these communities experience.

“You don't have to put in your name, you don't have to have money," she said. "It's as low barrier as possible, despite it being in jail."

Caitlin Fenhagen, criminal justice resource department director for Orange County, said her department’s monitoring of their vending machine's restock ensures continued accessibility to naloxone. 

She said Orange County is focused on enhancing harm reduction efforts, and she is happy to see people utilizing the Narcan kits. Fenhagen also said the machine includes COVID-19 tests and fentanyl test strips. 

While Orange County has effectively engaged in increasing naloxone accessibility, other state counties rejected the RJOI.

“I think a lot of folks in law enforcement and other places maybe haven't had the education that we have had here and may not have health departments that have fully embraced harm reduction, so I'm just glad to be in Orange County, where they have,” Fenhagen said.

With the addition of naloxone resources in North Carolina, Blair said she was optimistic for growth in substance abuse preventative work. 

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“I'm very inspired by the movement for (substance abuse) care,” she said. “I’m inspired by harm reduction in public health and the criminal justice system to help with the overdose problem.”

The vending machine can be found in the Orange County Detention Center. Other naloxone resources are located in the UNC Campus Health Pharmacy. 


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