Matt Pennon, Pacific Pride's manager of North County Programs & Services, holds free syringes for clients in the needle exchange program in Lompoc on Tuesday. | Credit: Len Wood, Lompoc Record

An astonishing 424 overdoses have been reversed since Pacific Pride Foundation began to include naloxone in its syringe-exchange program in mid-2016. Grown out of the need to stop blood-borne diseases like HIV, the needle-exchange program handed out 1,452 Narcan kits, the brand name for naloxone. And that’s just through 2018, according to a report to county supervisors last week. So far in 2019, another 1,554 kits were distributed, and 356 successful reversals saved lives, program administrator Matt Pennon said, who’d just compiled the numbers for a grant request to the state.

The distribution of naloxone — administered as a nasal spray — skyrocketed from 282 in 2017 to 1,053 in 2018, said Joy Kane, senior epidemiologist at County Public Health. It reversed 101 overdoses in 2017 and 308 in 2018 through the program, she said. (Medical personnel and first responders also administer naloxone, she said.) Comparatively, 32 and 31 county residents died of opioid overdose in 2017 and 2018, respectively, Kane said, less than half of heroin and roughly half of either fentanyl or prescription opioids, though many overdoses occurred from a combination of drugs.

Pennon has headed the program for the past two months, visiting Lompoc on Tuesday, Santa Maria on Wednesday, and Santa Barbara on Thursday. He said he was shocked by how broad a swath of the community he’s met.

 “This opioid epidemic we’re dealing with doesn’t just look at one gender or race or ethnicity.” Ages range from twenty-somethings to 40-, 50-, and 60-year-olds, he said, all races and ethnicities, men and women, but very few trans clients.

The program is anonymous, Pennon said, “partly to get people to feel comfortable and safe working with us.” The goal was to stop blood-borne diseases by exchanging dirty syringes for clean ones — “No judgment,” he emphasized — and providing supplies like fentanyl test strips and Narcan kits. But the regular contact enables Pride counselors to convey that they’re there to help. Among their clients, 58 percent were referred for substance abuse counseling and 21 percent were referred to mental-health services in recent years.

In providing the antidote, Pennon said, “We talk about how or when to give a dose. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin. If the person took a high hit, or dose, the Narcan wears off after a half hour, and you might need to give a second dose.” Naloxone blocks all the opioid receptors immediately, Pennon explained. 

“It takes someone from an overdose to being in withdrawal. They wake up in pain, uncomfortable, and not very happy.”

Originally, the free exchange of used needles for new ones was conceived as part of the battle against the deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic. In a report to county supervisors on December 10, Pacific Pride and County Public Health stated intravenous (IV) drug use was connected with fewer than 10 percent of the 59 new HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections in the county for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. As part of its disease-prevention work, Pride offers education and testing for HIV, hepatitis C, and other sexually transmitted infections. HIV was not detected in any client tested, but of the 85 clients screened for hep C, about 17 percent tested positive. 

Sophia Willis-Conger, Pacific Pride Community Education associate, waits for customers in the needle exchange program van with Matt Pennon, Manager of North County Programs & Services, in Lompoc on Tuesday.

About 20 percent more people used the syringe-exchange program, largely due to the availability of naloxone and consistent service at the three locations. Altogether, the program counted 839 unique clients — 304 in Santa Barbara, 369 in Santa Maria, and 166 in Lompoc — the county report stated. In the two-year reporting period, more than twice as many syringes were exchanged than in the previous period — about 271,000 compared to 102,000. 

Pennon said he wasn’t sure why the numbers were rising — since 2018, more than a half-million clean syringes had been distributed as of last week — but he thought the IV drug community were more aware of Pride’s work, and partners like BeWell and Public Health were informing their clients.

“We provide Narcan training to any organization in Santa Barbara County,” he added, saying any large company is likely to have someone who’s an IV drug user. “Better prepared than not prepared,” Pennon said. “It’s worth it.”

A shorter version of this story ran Sunday, December 15


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